Today: Irving Berlin, a self-trained songwriter with a 2nd grade education who became the biggest selling songwriter in history.
If you have a seemingly impossible dream, you will especially enjoy today’s story.
Irving Berlin wrote over a thousand songs, among them the scores for 18 Hollywood movies and 19 Broadway shows and he has often been called the greatest song writer of all-time.
His songs include the biggest selling song ever, “White Christmas,” and such classics as, “God Bless America,” “Easter Parade,” “Happy Holiday,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Puttin’ On The Ritz” and many other hits. 25 of his songs topped the record charts.
Bing Crosby’s version of “White Christmas,” according to the Guinness Book of World Records, has sold over 50 million copies. And it continues to sell.
With such extraordinary achievements; it would seem Irving must have come from a moneyed, well educated family that provided him with every opportunity. But nothing could be further from the truth.
He was born in Russia in 1888, the youngest of eight children. His father was a cantor (singer) in a Jewish synagogue. But in Czarist Russia, pogroms (beating and sometimes killing Jews while destroying their communities) were a periodic occurrence and in the 1890’s hit with a vengeance.
Years later, Irving (sometimes called “Izzy” by his friends) recalled as a boy the horror of seeing his home in flames, burning to the ground, as his family fled in terror. He was fortunate to survive.
In 1893, when little Irving was just five years old, his family along with many other Russian Jews of that era fled to New York City. His family settled in a Lower East Side tiny basement apartment, with no windows and only unheated water available to them.
Irving’s father found work in a kosher butcher shop and he taught Hebrew after hours, but it was a struggle to support the family. Three years later he died, leaving the family penniless.
Everyone went to work. Irving’s mother became a mid-wife providing medical care to other poor women and helping them give birth. His sisters wrapped cigars, a common job among untrained poor immigrant girls and an older brother worked in a garment sweatshop.
Eight year old Irving dropped out of grade school and sold newspapers. To sell more papers and to attract additional coins from amused patrons, he began singing hit songs of the day. It worked, as his little pockets jingled with pennies.
For Irving, this was the beginning of his musical career.
As he grew older, he became a singing waiter to add to his tips. Irving wanted to study music but given his lack of education and his struggle to pay his bills, it was out of the question.
While working in a piano bar, after closing time, Irving would sit at the piano and experiment with the sounds the keys made trying to recreate popular tunes. He also picked the brain of the piano player.
This is how Irving learned to play the piano, a skill he never thoroughly mastered.
Although he didn’t know how to read music, he knew enough piano to write songs with the help of an assistant writing down his catchy tunes and lyrics. Soon those tunes and lyrics led 23 year old Irving to his first hit in 1911 with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” And the hits never stopped.
Included among them was “Blue Skies” from “The Jazz Singer,” the first full length movie “talkie.”
Irving made a fortune and donated huge sums to charity, including the royalties from “God Bless America” to the Boy Scouts.
In his personal life, he married Dorothy Goetz in 1912, but she died six months later from typhoid she contracted during their honeymoon in Havana. Overwhelmed with grief, Irving wrote “When I Lost You,” and it became an immediate hit, selling well over a million copies.
In 1925, he met prominent young socialite Ellin Mackay and the couple fell in love. But she was the daughter of powerful business magnate Clarence Mckay who so opposed the marriage of his Catholic daughter to this Jewish man, that he sent her to Europe to find a more suitable match.
But she and Irving eloped and married in a small civil ceremony.
The couple remained very much in love and was married for 63 years until her passing in 1988, when Irving was 100 years old. The following year, Irving passed away in his sleep at the age of 101. They had a son who died in infancy, and three daughters and nine grandchildren.
But returning to those early days of their marriage, with the crash of the stock markets in 1929, triggering the Great Depression, Irving’s estranged father-in-law lost his fortune and ironically it was Irving, by then a vastly wealthy man, who bailed him out.
As for Irving’s song writing career, he turned his lack of formal musical training to his advantage. “… I do not have to observe any rules and can do as I like, which is much better for me than if I allowed myself to be governed by the rules of versification,” he said.*
“In following my own method I can make my jingles fit my music or vice versa with no qualms as to their correctness. Usually I compose my tunes and then fit words to them, though sometimes it’s the other way about.”*
Despite his fame and fortune, Irving never outgrew his early years in New York City that shaped him. He would occasionally return to the modest neighborhoods he lived in as a youth and recall when times were so hard he slept under stoops, ate scraps and wore worn out clothing.
And he was particularly dedicated to America; a nation he felt rescued him and his family and gave him opportunities to succeed that were not available anywhere else. Hence “God Bless America” came from his pen but it had first come from his heart.
Success Tip of the Week:
Wherever in the world you live, great opportunity awaits you if only you will apply yourself in pursuit of your dreams. And if like Irving Berlin, you lack the tools but you are determined, you may find a way to overcome your limitations.
*Quote taken from “The Story of Irving Berlin,” New York Times, 1/2/16, noted from “Irving Berlin,” in Wikipedia. Also thank you to Ariel Feir and his Ariel’s AbodeNews from October, 2010 for his “Dreams Do Come True,” about Irving Berlin. www.feir.com.
In the next KazanToday:
A woman who built a successful business in her 60’s and then did something even more remarkable.