As we barrel headlong into psychotic Christmas shopping season; as Midtown becomes an open-air sardine tin of tourists with massive shopping bags; as outdoor speakers and radio stations blare the tiresome tunes of our childhood holidays on infinite goddamn repeat; take a slow quiet moment and listen to that tune — that quintessential end-of-December classic, White Christmas. Listen to Bing Crosby croon away — the '07 Guinness Book of World Records
recognized this tune as the biggest selling single of all time in any music genre. In one of the all-time great ironies, it was written by a Russian Jew, one of the greatest songwriters of all time as well as an exemplary New Yorker, the incomparable Irving Berlin.
Born with the unwieldy name of Israel Baline in Tyumem, Russia in 1888, Berlin immigrated with his family in 1893 and grew up on the Lower East Side. With the death, in 1896, of his father, a Rabbi and Cantor in the LES community, Berlin entered the work force at an early age, to avoid starving. When he was employed as a singing waiter at the Pelham Café on Doyers Street in what is now Chinatown (the café has since been replaced by a strange U-shaped Post Office, around the corner from the Bowery), Berlin’s boss demanded a quickly written jingle to challenge the café next door. “Marie from Sunny Italy” came of the charge and became Berlin’s first published hit. He only made 37 cents from the song, but Berlin earned something much more important: his name. Israel Baline was misprinted as I. Berlin on the song sheet, and the Americanization suited him fine.
By the 1910s, Berlin was writing tunes for vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley, the conglomeration of songwriters and melody-shillers working in the Exchange Building, 145 West 45th Street. His first major hit was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” in 1911; upon its release, four different versions hit number one. By the roaring twenties, Berlin had become an accomplished show tune writer, putting together revues for the musical stage, including Watch Your Step, Yip Yip Yaphank, The Cocoanuts
(the latter starring the Marx Brothers), and dozens more. These revues did fine, but Berlin’s greatest theatrical success came in one of America’s most beloved Broadway plays – Annie Get Your Gun
, based on the life of legendary Western outlaw Annie Oakley. Along with his shows, Berlin scripted some of the most famous songs in the American pantheon, including “God Bless America,” “Puttin’ On the Ritz,” “Blue Skies,” sung by Al Jolson in the groundbreaking early sound feature The Jazz Singer
, along with the abovementioned holiday wonderland "White Christmas."
When he started in the business, Berlin couldn’t read or write musical notation; he was an autodidact at the piano and only worked in one key. As his fame spread, he had a specialty piano built for him that used a unique keyboard shifting device to utilize the other keys. Supposedly, the night in early 1940 when Berlin scripted “White Christmas” — he was a notorious amnesiac and did most of his writing at night — he ran to his office in the morning and told his musical secretary
"Grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I've ever written — hell, I just wrote the best song that anybody's ever written!" And how! The US Government also used “White Christmas” as a prearranged radio code to signify the American evacuation of Saigon, Vietnam on April 30th, 1975. (You’d be hard-pressed to find the song on the streets of Saigon — I tried. No dice.)
Berlin was also intensely patriotic. A World War I veteran too old to enlist during World War II, Berlin instead traveled to Army camps and entertained the troops at home and abroad, and wrote patriotic fighting songs and donated the profits to the Army. Berlin’s world tour during the war stopped at many bloody battlefields, including London while still under air attack from Germany, Rome just weeks after the liberation, the Middle East and then the Pacific, oftentimes mere miles from the war zone. President Truman awarded Berlin the Medal of Merit, and later, Berlin wrote the jingle “I Like Ike” for Eisenhower’s victorious Presidential campaign. In an attempt to categorize Irving Berlin’s place in American Music, the famous Broadway director Jerome Kern said of the man: “Irving Berlin is American music.” Berlin died in 1989 at 101 years old and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Regardless of where his final resting place is, Irving Berlin lives on in all our hearts and ears every time they play that goddamn song.