11 Surprising Facts About Irving Berlin

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Irving Berlin is famous for writing classic American songs such as “White Christmas,” “God Bless America,” "Puttin' on the Ritz," and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Known as the King of Tin Pan Alley, he wrote more than 1000 songs that appeared in movies, TV shows, and Broadway musicals. In honor of what would be Berlin’s 130th birthday, here are 11 facts about the legendary songwriter.

1. HE WAS RUSSIAN BY BIRTH, NOT GERMAN.

Israel Isidore Baline was born May 11, 1888 in Mohilev, Russia. In the early 1890s, Berlin’s parents moved their family of eight (Israel, who was 5 at the time, was the youngest of six) from Russia to New York City’s Lower East Side to escape anti-Jewish pogroms. He went by Izzy in America in an attempt to assimilate, and when his first composition was printed, it bore the name "I. Berlin." Berlin allowed a rumor to circulate that it was a printing error that created his pen name, but biographers tend to note that he chose it because it closely resembled his birth name, but sounded less ethnic. In 1911, he legally made the change from Izzy Baline to Irving Berlin.

2. AFTER HIS FATHER DIED, HE QUIT SCHOOL AND BEGAN SINGING ON THE STREET.

Berlin's father, Moses Baline, had been a cantor (one who leads prayer songs) in Russia, but had trouble finding steady work in America. He died of chronic bronchitis when Berlin was just 13. Though the young boy had already been selling newspapers to try to help his family make money, Berlin quit school and, in an attempt to lessen the financial burden for his mother, he also moved out and lived in a ghetto on the Bowery, beginning when he was just 14 years old. To support himself, he busked on the streets and in back rooms of saloons for money, hoping that passersby and bar regulars would give him their spare change. He later worked as a singing waiter in Chinatown.

3. HE EARNED A HANDFUL OF COINS FOR HIS FIRST SONG.

In 1907, Berlin sold the publishing rights to his first song to a music publisher for 75 cents. Because he co-wrote the song, called “Marie from Sunny Italy,” with a pianist, Berlin only received half (approximately 37 cents) of the payment for the piece.

4. HIS RAGTIME SONG INSPIRED A TRENDY DANCE.

Long before the Macarena or the Harlem Shake, Berlin’s song “Alexander's Ragtime Band” (1911) topped the charts and sold more than 1 million copies of sheet music. Although it wasn’t an authentic ragtime song, it inspired people across the world to hit the dance floor. Over the decades, different singers including Ray Charles recorded versions of the song.

5. “WHEN I LOST YOU” WAS ABOUT THE DEATH OF HIS NEW WIFE.

In 1912, Berlin married Dorothy Goetz, but his new wife caught typhoid fever on their honeymoon in Cuba and died five months later. He wrote his first ballad, “When I Lost You,” about the experience: “I lost the sunshine and roses / I lost the heavens of blue / I lost the beautiful rainbow… When I lost you.” The song sold more than 1 million copies.

6. HE WROTE PATRIOTIC SONGS IN WWI AND WWII.

In 1917, during World War I, the U.S. Army drafted Berlin to write patriotic songs. In order to raise funds for a community building on his Long Island army base, he wrote Yip! Yip! Yaphank!, a popular musical revue performed by actual soldiers that later went to various theaters around New York. It included the popular song "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," which Berlin sang at each performance.

During World War II, Berlin wrote This Is The Army, which became a Broadway musical and 1943 film starring Ronald Reagan. Berlin chose not to personally profit from the show—he gave all the earnings, over $9.5 million, to the U.S. Army Emergency Relief Fund.

7. HE BOUGHT TRANSPOSING PIANOS DUE TO HIS LACK OF MUSICAL TRAINING.

Despite Berlin’s incredible songwriting success, he was neither classically trained nor educated in music theory. He only knew how to play the piano in F sharp, so in order to write songs that didn’t all sound the same, he bought transposing keyboards. These special keyboards changed the key, allowing him to play the same notes but produce different sounds. Berlin also paid music secretaries who notated and transcribed his music.

8. HIS INTERFAITH MARRIAGE GENERATED CONTROVERSY.


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In 1925, Berlin met and fell in love with a Roman Catholic debutante named Ellin Mackay. Her father, a financier named Clarence Mackay, disapproved of Berlin because he was Jewish. The couple’s interfaith relationship attracted major press attention, and Mackay’s father reportedly disowned her when she married him in a secret ceremony in 1926. One biographer noted that though Irving was Jewish and Ellin was Catholic, their three daughters were raised Protestant, "largely because Ellin was in favor of religious tolerance." Mackay’s father came around several years later, and the Berlins were together for 62 years until Ellin's death in 1988. He died the following year at age 101.

9. HE GAVE ALL ROYALTIES FOR “GOD BLESS AMERICA” TO THE BOY AND GIRL SCOUTS.

Although Berlin originally wrote “God Bless America” during WWI for Yip! Yip! Yaphank!, he didn’t use the song until 1938. Through its lyrics, Berlin expressed his gratitude to America for giving him everything, and “God Bless America” became an instantly recognizable, patriotic song.

He decided that 100 percent of the song’s royalties would go to the Boy and Girl Scouts and the Campfire Girls. Thanks to Berlin’s God Bless America Fund, which assigned royalties from “God Bless America” (plus his other patriotic songs) to the Scouts, the organizations have received millions of dollars over the years.

10. HE COMPOSED ANNIE GET YOUR GUN AFTER HIS FRIEND’S SUDDEN DEATH.

In 1945, composer Jerome Kern (best known for Show Boat) started working on the score for a new Rodgers and Hammerstein-produced musical, Annie Get Your Gun. But when Kern died unexpectedly within a week of starting to write, Berlin took over scoring duties. Berlin’s music and lyrics for the musical, which included songs such as “There's No Business Like Show Business” and “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better,” helped make Annie Get Your Gun a massive success.

11. ALTHOUGH “WHITE CHRISTMAS” IS HIS BIGGEST HIT, CHRISTMAS WAS A TRAGIC TIME FOR BERLIN.

“White Christmas” has become a Christmas classic, selling more than 100 million copies. But Christmas was a time of sadness for Berlin and his wife: their only son, also named Irving, died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome on Christmas Day in 1928. The baby was three weeks old when he died, and the Berlins, along with their three other children, mourned his death each holiday season.

11 Things You May Not Know About John Lennon

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You know that John Lennon, who would have turned 78 years old today, was the leader and founding member of The Beatles. Let's take a look at a few facts you might not have known about him.

1. HE WAS A CHOIR BOY AND A BOY SCOUT.

Yes, John Lennon, the great rock 'n' roll rebel and iconoclast, was once a choir boy and a Boy Scout. Lennon began his singing career as a choir boy at St. Peter's Church in Liverpool, England and was a member of the 3rd Allerton Boy Scout troop.

2. HE HATED HIS OWN VOICE.

Incredibly, one of the greatest singers in the history of rock music hated his own voice. Lennon did not like the sound of his voice and loved to double-track his records. He would often ask the band's producer, George Martin, to cover the sound of his voice: "Can't you smother it with tomato ketchup or something?"

3. HE WAS DISSATISFIED WITH ALL OF THE BEATLES'S RECORDS.

Dining with his former producer, George Martin, one night years after the band had split up, Lennon revealed that he'd like to re-record every Beatles song. Completely amazed, Martin asked him, "Even 'Strawberry Fields'?" "Especially 'Strawberry Fields,'" answered Lennon.

4. HE WAS THE ONLY BEATLE WHO DIDN'T BECOME A FULL-TIME VEGETARIAN.

John Lennon (1940 - 1980) of the Beatles plays the guitar in a hotel room in Paris, 16th January 1964
Harry Benson, Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

George Harrison was the first Beatle to go vegetarian; according to most sources, he officially became a vegetarian in 1965. Paul McCartney joined the "veggie" ranks a few years later. Ringo became a vegetarian not so much for spiritual reasons, like Paul and George, but because of health problems. Lennon had toyed with vegetarianism in the 1960s, but he always ended up eating meat, one way or another.

5. HE LOVED TO PLAY MONOPOLY.

During his Beatles days, Lennon was a devout Monopoly player. He had his own Monopoly set and often played in his hotel room or on planes. He liked to stand up when he threw the dice, and he was crazy about the properties Boardwalk and Park Place. He didn't even care if he lost the game, as long as he had Boardwalk and Park Place in his possession.

6. HE WAS THE LAST BEATLE TO LEARN HOW TO DRIVE.

Lennon got his driver's license at the age of 24 (on February 15, 1965). He was regarded as a terrible driver by all who knew him. He finally gave up driving after he totaled his Aston-Martin in 1969 on a trip to Scotland with his wife, Yoko Ono; his son, Julian; and Kyoko, Ono's daughter. Lennon needed 17 stitches after the accident.

When they returned to England, Lennon and Ono mounted the wrecked car on a pillar at their home. From then on, Lennon always used a chauffeur or driver.

7. HE REPORTEDLY USED TO SLEEP IN A COFFIN.

According to Allan Williams, an early manager for The Beatles, Lennon liked to sleep in an old coffin. Williams had an old, abandoned coffin on the premises of his coffee bar, The Jacaranda. As a gag, Lennon would sometimes nap in it.

8. THE LAST TIME HE SAW PAUL MCCARTNEY WAS ON APRIL 24, 1976. 

Paul McCartney (left) and John Lennon (1940-1980) of the Beatles pictured together during production and filming of the British musical comedy film Help! on New Providence Island in the Bahamas on 2nd March 1965
William Lovelace, Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

McCartney was visiting Lennon at his New York apartment. They were watching Saturday Night Live together when producer Lorne Michaels, as a gag, offered the Beatles $3000 to come on the show. Lennon and McCartney almost took a cab to the show as a joke, but decided against it, as they were just too tired. (Too bad! It would have been one of the great moments in television history.)

9. HE WAS ORIGINALLY SUPPOSED TO SING LEAD ON THE BEATLES'S FIRST SINGLE, 1962'S "LOVE ME DO."

Lennon sang lead on a great majority of the early Beatles songs, but Paul McCartney took the lead on their very first one. The lead was originally supposed to be Lennon, but because he had to play the harmonica, the lead was given to McCartney instead.

10. "ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE" WAS THE BEST LYRIC HE EVER WROTE.

A friend once asked Lennon what was the best lyric he ever wrote. "That's easy," replied Lennon, "All you need is love."

11. THE LAST PHOTOGRAPHER TO SNAP HIS PICTURE WAS PAUL GORESH.

Ironically (and sadly), Lennon was signing an album for the person who was to assassinate him a few hours later when he was snapped by amateur photographer Paul Goresh on December 8, 1980.

Lennon obligingly signed a copy of his latest album, Double Fantasy, for Mark David Chapman. Later that same day, Lennon returned from the recording studio and was gunned down by Chapman, the same person for whom he had so kindly signed his autograph.

Morbidly, a photographer sneaked into the morgue and snapped a photo of Lennon's body before it was cremated the day after his assassination. Yoko Ono has never revealed the whereabouts of his ashes or what happened to them.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

The Stories Behind 7 Famous Songs about Smiling

Povareshka, iStock
Povareshka, iStock

World Smile Day (celebrated on the first Friday in October) was founded to honor Harvey Ball, the commercial artist who created the iconic yellow smiley face image in the 1960s. It's no wonder that the happy image took off—humans have evolved to be attracted to smiles. So it's also no wonder that we sing about their charms as well. Here are the stories behind seven smiley songs, from upbeat crooners to cheesy power ballads.

1. "SARA SMILE" // HALL & OATES

In 1975, "Sara Smile" was Hall & Oates's breakthrough single—their first to hit the Top 10—and its namesake influenced countless other songs by the duo. Daryl Hall's longtime girlfriend, Sara Allen (they were together for 30-some years), would later help pen many of their hits, like "You Make My Dreams," "Private Eyes," and "Maneater." But for this sweet ballad, Hall later said that it was a sincere appreciation about "the essence of a relationship … It's a heartfelt story. It's the real thing."

2. "A WINK AND A SMILE" // HARRY CONNICK, JR.

The easy swing of "A Wink and a Smile" may sound like an old jazz classic, but it was written specifically for the Sleepless in Seattle (1993) soundtrack by composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Ramsey McLean. Shaiman and director Rob Reiner were big fans of Harry Connick, Jr.—he'd been scouted to do the entire soundtrack for When Harry Met Sally… four years prior; that album was hugely successful and won Connick his first Grammy—so when they needed a jazz pianist for a key song for Sleepless, they knew where to turn. "Wink" was nominated for Best Original Song at that year's Oscars but lost to Bruce Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia."

3. "YOUR SMILING FACE" // JAMES TAYLOR

It's been speculated that this sunny song was written about his then-wife Carly Simon, but according to a 2009 biography on Taylor, the song was about their young daughter, Sally. Imagining the "pretty little pout" of a toddler turning a proud dad "inside out" might just push this saccharine song into unbearable cuteness territory.

4. "YOU'RE NEVER FULLY DRESSED WITHOUT A SMILE" // ANNIE

Written by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin for the 1977 Broadway musical Annie, "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile" opened the second act with an upbeat Depression-era radio song meant to cheer the downtrodden public. For the 2014 remake of the movie starring Quvenzhané Wallis, Sia released a cover for the soundtrack that upgraded some of the more dated fashion references (like replacing "Chanel, Gucci" for "Beau Brummell-y") and made it an empowerment anthem as opposed to a 1930s radio jingle.

5. "SHE SMILED SWEETLY" // THE ROLLING STONES

"Here, Mick Jagger significantly tones down his approach to women," the tome The Rolling Stones: All the Songs declares. "There is no misogynistic double meaning." However, misogyny (or lack thereof) aside, it's still unclear who—if anyone—this ballad was about. In 1968, the year after "She Smiled Sweetly" was released, Jagger told Rolling Stone that their numerous songs centered on women were about "Different girls. They are all very unthoughtout songs." And though many, including music biographer Stephen Davis, pointed to Jagger's late-'60s relationship with singer Marianne Faithfull as being the muse for "the first real love lyric Mick wrote," Jagger later told NME that the song was meant to have religious connotations. "It was he smiled sweetly, but someone changed it," he said.

6. "WHEN YOU'RE SMILING (THE WHOLE WORLD SMILES WITH YOU)" // VARIOUS

This American standard was written in 1928 by the trio of Shay, Fisher, and Goodwin and released that year by Seger Ellis, a jazz musician from Texas. Ellis's early recording included an intro verse ("I saw a blind man/he was a kind man/helping a fellow along // One could not see/one could not walk/but both were humming this song") that was cut from the popular subsequent versions by people like Dean Martin, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Frank Sinatra.

7. "WHEN I SEE YOU SMILE" // BAD ENGLISH

In the late '80s, a supergroup of Babys and Journey musicians teamed up behind lead singer John Waite to form Bad English, a band SPIN once called "music for the masses who like their rock 'n' roll lite." Waite and company (including longtime Journey guitarist Neal Schon) started putting together their eponymous first album, and according to Waite, the band was opposed to doing any outside songs. Their label had sent them a Diane Warren power ballad though, and Waite insisted on using it; "When I See You Smile" is one of only two songs on the album that Waite doesn't have a writing credit on. He recorded the vocals in two takes, and the song hit No. 1 for two weeks in November 1989.

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