Vintage WD: Irving Berlin

In December 1929, WD profiled composer and songwriter Irving Berlin, famous for such hits as the music in the films Holiday Inn and White Christmas among many others. Read the full feature here.
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In December 1929, WD profiled composer and songwriter Irving Berlin, famous for such hits as the music in the films Holiday Inn and White Christmas among many others. Read the full feature here.

Seven Years of Preparing for and Practicing the Art of Popular Song Writing—Then He Gained the Position Atop the World as America’s Most Popular Song Writer

By Roy Griffith, Writer's Digest, December 1929

Irving Berlin quote

“How did he do it?” That is the question song writers may well ask when they consider the amazing success of the young man of forty who has written more than 300 popular songs in the past twenty years, and who is today several times a millionaire.

The young man’s name is Israel Baline; you know him as Irving Berlin. He was born a Russian Jew, son of a rabbi, and is a product of New York’s lower east side and Broadway’s Tin Pan Alley. He started his career as a singing waiter in Salter’s Saloon on the Bowery. Today he has his own publishing business and is part owner of a leading New York theater.

Irving Berlin began with more than his share of handicaps. His family was bitterly poor, his formal education was extremely “sketchy,” and his knowledge of music was absolutely nil. In addition, he has never been especially robust physically. He has overcome poverty and, to some extent, lack of education but he still pounds out his melodies on the piano with one finger. He can play the piano passably, by ear, in just one key—F sharp. He can neither read music nor transcribe it, yet he gave birth to the intricate and brilliant melody of “Everybody Step,” which musical critics have hailed as a masterpiece of musical art.

“Oh, Mr. Berlin,” someone said to him one day, “I guess there’s no one who has written as many song hits as you have.”

“I know there’s no one who has written so many failures,” he replied with a smile.

There you have a least one of the factors in his success. It is a factor which inevitably shows itself in the story of every successful man—that of perseverance and refusal to become discouraged. He has written a lot of failures, yes. But look at the hits he has also turned out. In his sparring with Life, or Destiny, or whatever it is we mortals battle, he has received many a black eye but, as the Irishman in his story said, “You ought to see the other fellow.”

During his earlier years as a song writer, he was a prolific producer. He poured out songs so fast at one time that many were published under a nom de plume. These songs did not just bubble out of him; rather, they were exploded out of him. A chance spark from the anvil of Life, an inward explosion—and another song was born.

“My wife’s gone to the country,” a friend remarked one day. “Hooray,” replied Irving. Forthwith a melodic tale of husbandly truancy, in sheet music form, invaded thousands of American homes.

Berlin has written a larger percentage of hits than any other song writer. In 1911, the year he wrote “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” in a rhythm which no one had ever consciously heard before, he produced half a dozen hits. Among them were “That Mysterious Rag,” Everybody’s Doing It,” and “The Ragtime Violin.” All these were in ragtime, the forerunner of jazz—a rhythm which Berlin had absorbed from listening to pianists in the honkey tonks jazzing up melodies to keep time with the agitated shoulders and hips of the dancers. It may be of interest to note that “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” the first of the songs in this new rhythm, was originally written as an instrumental piece. It was ignored and forgotten until one day Berlin needed a new song in a hurry. He dug up the piece, fitted words to it, and sent it forth to change the musical map of the world.

In addition to his unprecedented “batting average” in the percentage of hits he has produced, the total sales of Berlin’s songs have exceeded those of any other song writer of all time. In an attempt to analyze the “Why” of these facts, we must go deeper than just to say that he kept plugging.

As has been said, his father was a rabbi. The father had also been a cantor—chief singer in the synagogue—as had been his father before him. So that in a little Israel Baline was born that love of melody and rhythm which is the heritage of generations of music lovers. Add to this an unrivalled capacity for inventing themes and the fact that he was a natural rhymester, and you have about all the natural equipment which Berlin ever possessed. It was just about the same equipment as every writer of folk songs possessed since time began.

As evidence of his natural being, when he was about fourteen years of age—several years before he began his more “formal” career at Salter’s Saloon—he would pick up tunes from the hurdy-gurdies and sing them in friendly saloons for the shower of pennies from patrons. Later, as a singing waiter, he would make up parodies of popular songs of the moment. In these incidents you see his natural talents in play—love of melody, capacity to invent themes, and ability of rhyming.

Peculiarly enough, his meager schooling proved an asset rather than a liability in his career as a song writer. With little education, his vocabulary was limited. He only knew the simpler words and the language of the average man. As a famous Broadway wit once remarked, “Berlin is a man of few words.” In his songs, then, he clung to the vernacular—the language the masses understood. Therein may be seen one reason for the success of his simple ditties. How closely he has kept to the American language in writing his songs is shown by the fact that all London wondered, a few years ago, the meaning of the word “whattle,” in “What’ll I Do,” when that song reached Britain’s shores.

The first song Berlin wrote was called “Marie From Sunny Italy.” His share of the profits from this forgotten masterpiece was thirty-seven cents. He wrote a couple of others; nobody seems to know just what did become of them; then came the day of days when he actually sold a song called “Dorando” to Ted Snyder, Inc. for $25. Later, Snyder employed him to write lyrics with a drawing account of $25 a week against royalties against the sale of the songs.

Three years as a singing waiter, composing parodies and painfully scribbling verses whenever opportunity offered. Four years of writing popular ditties on a royalty basis which did not make him very rich. Then—“Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and a glimpse of real success. Seven years of preparing for and practicing the art of popular song writing. Then—a reserved seat atop the world which he has held for the past eighteen years. That, in tabloid, is the story of Irving Berlin’s success.

Try your hand at songwriting with these tips from Pat Pattison, author of the bestselling Writer's Digest Book Writing Better Lyrics.

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