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.


Getty Images

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.

National Portrait Gallery Celebrates Aretha Franklin With Week-Long Exhibition

Courtesy of Angela Pham BFA
Courtesy of Angela Pham BFA

With the passing of Aretha Franklin on August 16, 2018, the world has lost one of its most distinctive voices—and personalities. As celebrities and fans share their memories of the Queen of Soul and what her music meant to them, the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery will pay tribute to the legendary songstress's life with a week-long exhibition of her portrait.

Throughout her career, Franklin earned some of the music industry's highest accolades, including 18 Grammy Awards. In 1987, she became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Nearly 30 years later, in 2015, the National Portrait Gallery fêted Franklin with the Portrait of a Nation Prize, which recognizes "the accomplishments of notable contemporary Americans whose portraits reside in the National Portrait Gallery collection." (Madeline Albright, Spike Lee, and Rita Moreno are among some of its recent recipients.)

Milton Glaser's lithograph of Aretha Franklin, which is displayed at The National Portrait Gallery
© Milton Glaser

Franklin's portrait was the creation of noted graphic designer Milton Glaser, who employed "his characteristic kaleidoscope palette and innovative geometric forms to convey the creative energy of Franklin's performances," according to the Gallery. The colorful lithographic was created in 1968, the very same year that the National Portrait Gallery opened.

Glaser's image will be installed in the "In Memoriam" section of the museum, which is located on the first floor, on Friday, August 17 and will remain on display to the public through August 22, 2018. The Gallery is open daily from 11:30 a.m. until 7 p.m. and admission is free.

Too Sexy to Last: The Right Said Fred Story

Ralph Orlowski, Getty Images
Ralph Orlowski, Getty Images

Guy Holmes popped the tape into the cassette player in his car and waited. The British record promoter was eager to hear new acts, but knew that the majority of them weren’t going to be good or unique enough to cut through the noise of the worldwide music scene. In 1991, it was still a multibillion dollar business, not yet smothered by file-sharing. Success was determined by decision-makers at record labels and radio stations, whose tastes were often mercurial and hard to anticipate.

The cassette had been given to Holmes by a friend, a 19-year-old named Tamzin Aronowitz. She was dating Rob Manzoli, the guitarist of an act called Right Said Fred, and insisted the group—which also consisted of brothers Richard and Fred Fairbrass—had a hook. He listened.

I’m too sexy for my car

Too sexy for my car

Too sexy by far

And I’m too sexy for my hat

Too sexy for my hat

What do you think about that?

Holmes was driving with a friend, a man of Russian descent who had been drinking vodka for most of the night. As Richard Fairbrass sang about other things he was too sexy for—Milan, Japan, parties, his shirt—Holmes noticed his passenger bouncing in his seat and mouthing the words.

This might be a dumb song, Holmes thought. A very dumb song. But it’s catchy.

By 1992, “I’m Too Sexy” was the number one tune in 32 countries, including the United States, and the Fairbrass brothers went from being gym managers and sporadic musicians to the kitschy pop act of the moment. But they wondered whether people knew they were in on the joke, and whether they had the ability to survive the plague that had taken down so many talented musicians before them—the affliction of being an overnight success.

 
 

Richard Fairbrass was born in East Grinstead, Sussex in 1953. His brother, Fred, followed three years later. Raised in a relatively well-off environment by Peter and Mary Fairbrass, Richard thought he might wind up becoming a politician; Fred was more interested in athletics. By their late teens, both had gravitated toward music, forgoing any thought of a formal career in exchange for odd jobs and band practice that led to small gigs with London punk bands. At one performance, an irate—or possibly enthused—fan managed to pee on Richard.

From 1977 to 1987, they performed under a variety of names, including Trash Flash and Money, and landed a series of not-quite-breakthrough gigs. Richard got a job as a session musician for three David Bowie music videos, while Fred had a stint backing up Bob Dylan. Their act wavered from punk to rock to a blend of the two.

After an unsuccessful tour of New York, the brothers returned to London in 1988. Both took to going to the gym to build their bodies back up and shaved their heads. They also met Rob Manzoli, a guitarist, and Brian Pugsley, who had access to computer synthesizers that the brothers thought might evolve their sound into something more palatable than their acoustic act.

Jamming in Pugsley’s apartment one night over a bass line inspired by Jimi Hendrix, Richard took off his shirt—it was hot in there—and proclaimed he was “too sexy” for it. From that line evolved an entire hook that played on the narcissism the brothers had witnessed both in the gym and among the models in New York’s fashion scene. The song wasn’t about the band thinking they were too sexy, but about the self-absorbed egos who really believed it. Supported by a backing track from a DJ named Tommy D, "I'm Too Sexy" was polished into an anthem about vanity.

 
 

Now going by Right Said Fred—a name they took from a 1962 Bernard Cribbins song about furniture movers—the trio started shopping the single to record labels. No one was interested. The only bite was from Holmes, who tried to entice executives but was met with the same resistance. In a self-admitted act of “belligerence,” Holmes produced copies of the single himself, while his secretary, Aronowitz, became the group’s manager. It was a homegrown operation, one in which the group was urged to formally record the final version of the song in an unheated studio because it was cheaper.

“I’m Too Sexy” made its way into the hands of producers at the BBC and Capital Radio. “I’m not sure if this is good or it’s crap,” one radio producer said, then played it anyway. The song spread quickly, making its way to the top of the most-requested queues in England. A DJ from Miami was on vacation in Europe when he heard it. From there, it spread to the United States and abroad, topping the Billboard Top 100 chart for three weeks straight and becoming a perpetual club selection well into 1992. (It only rose to number two in the UK, trumped by Bryan Adams’s “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You.”) The pop icon of the era, Madonna, announced she was sexually interested in Fred. Truant students announced they were “too sexy” for school. Stewardesses asked the brothers if they weren’t “too sexy” to be on a plane, a variation on a joke that they would wind up hearing thousands of times.

“It’s part of the job,” Fred said of the jokes.

Almost immediately, Right Said Fred underwent what industry veterans would call an "image makeover." A fashion designer squeezed them into vinyl outfits, fishnet shirts, and various half-clothed stage uniforms. Though they were in their early thirties, they fibbed and told reporters they were in their early twenties. They were advised to ease up on the weightlifting, as their pumped-up physiques were deemed too frightening for general public consumption.

Holmes produced their first album, 1992's Up, and helped them spin off two more successful songs: “Don’t Talk Just Kiss” and “Deeply Dippy.” They made the requisite MTV appearances and fended off speculation that “I’m Too Sexy” was a sign of them being the prototypical one-hit wonder.

Unfortunately, "I'm Too Sexy" wound up proving exactly that. But the brothers would argue that it was not their fault—it was Holmes’s.

 
 

Up had taken just five weeks to record. Their sophomore album, Sex and Travel, took nine months. Released in 1993, it failed to capture the public’s attention in the way “I’m Too Sexy” seemed to reverberate with kids, teens, and adults.

The brothers would later point the finger at Holmes, claiming he had chosen to release the wrong single tracks; Holmes countered that Richard and Fred had final say over what got the “A” side of the records. Subsequent albums followed—nine in all—but none ever reached the heights of their event-filled summer of 1991.

“I’m Too Sexy” remains a popular jab at people who indulge in vanity, and the brothers still perform it as part of their regular gigs. (Manzoli left the band in the mid-1990s.) They approved a new version targeting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad (who was revealed to have had the song on his playlist) and debuted it on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver in 2014. (“I’m too sexy for this shirt” became “You’re too awful for this Earth.”) To this day, however, Fred believes there’s still some confusion over whether the song is to be taken seriously. He tried to clarify it for Rolling Stone in 2017.

“They didn’t get the cynicism and the joke,” he said. “But the idea of the song is that you obviously can’t be too sexy, right? No one can be too sexy.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios