Irving Berlin was born Israel Baline in 1888, in the village of Tyumen, Russia. His family fled to escape the region's persecution of the Jewish community and settled in New York City in the mid-1890s. As a teen, Baline worked as a street singer, and by 1906 he had become a singing waiter in Chinatown. His first published tune was 1907’s “Marie From Sunny Italy,” with Nick Nicholson penning the music. As the lyricist, Baline’s name was misspelled as “I. Berlin” on the sheet music. He decided to keep the name, becoming Irving Berlin.
Berlin was diligent in his writing efforts and was self-taught as a pianist, never learning how to read music and playing exclusively in the key of F-sharp, working with a special transcribing keyboard and assistants to explore other keys! At 18, he got a job as a singing waiter at the Pelham Cafe in Chinatown, serving drinks and singing made-up parodies of hit songs to the delight of customers. Biographer Charles Hamm writes that in Berlin’s free time after hours, he taught himself to play the piano. Never having lessons, after Pelham would close for the night, young Berlin would sit at a piano in the back and begin improvising tunes. His first attempt at actual songwriting was “Marie From Sunny Italy,” written in collaboration with the Pelham’s resident pianist, Mike Nicholson. He sold the rights to this, his first song, for 37 cents.
Nonetheless, by the second decade of the 20th century, he had dozens of songs under his belt. He released a major hit in 1911, “Alexander's Ragtime Band,” earning the nickname “King of Tin Pan Alley.” This led him to begin writing Broadway musicals as well, earning him his Broadway debut with Watch Your Step in 1914. Berlin became a U.S. citizen in 1916 and, upon serving in World War I, penned the musical Yip! Yip! Yaphank! as an Army fundraiser. Berlin would go on to compose more than 1,500 songs and score dozens of musicals and films. Among his best known big-screen works were Puttin' on the Ritz (1929), Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938), Easter Parade (1948) and three Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films, including Top Hat (1935) and Follow the Fleet (1936). 1942’s Holiday Inn showcased Bing Crosby “White Christmas,” which would become the highest-selling tune in history.
Berlin would ultimately be nominated for nine Academy Awards with seven nods in the song category, winning in 1943 for “White Christmas.”
Berlin was also a huge fan of the Steinway: in his 1915 song “I Love a Piano,” he sings, “I love a piano / I love to hear somebody play / upon a piano, a grand piano / it simply carries me away. I know a fine way to treat a Steinway / I love to run my fingers o’er the keys, the ivories…”
After crafting the 1962 musical Mr. President, Irving Berlin retired, spending ample time in his Catskill Mountains home and eventually withdrawing from public appearances. He died in New York City in 1989 at the age of 101.