Acclaimed songwriter and composer Irving Berlin was born Israel Baline to a Russian family of eight children. His father, a local cantor, was forced to relocate the family from Russia due to the pogroms which terrorized Jews during the time. Berlin would later recount that his most vivid memory of life in Russia was of his family home being burned down by a violent mob. And so by 1893, the Baline family had found its way to New York's lower east side.
Unfortunately, the elder Baline died when young Israel was only eight, and the young boy was forced to take a job to help support his family. By fourteen, he had moved to the Bowery district and was earning a living by singing in saloons. Changing his name to 'Irving Berlin', he performed the popular songs of the day; absorbing the melodic and lyrical styles that resonated with the masses.
In 1908, Berlin secured the position of Staff Lyricist at a music publishing company, and penned his first hit “Alexander's Ragtime Band” a few years later. The song has been recorded numerous times by various artists and was a #1 Hit for artists such as Ray Charles, Bing Crosby, Bessie Smith, and Louis Armstrong. Within a few years, Berlin had written a series of hit songs and Broadway scores which made him a legend before the age of thirty. His lyrics were recognized for their straight-forward American vernacular, and his melodies were immediately compelling.
A true rags to riches story, Irving Berlin remained a champion of America and its people– always writing to and for the average citizen. Over his sixty year career, he wrote over 1500 songs, scored 19 Broadway shows and 18 Hollywood films. Among his best known songs are “God Bless America” (for which he received a Congressional Gold Medal), “White Christmas” (still the best-selling single of all time), and “Puttin' on the Ritz”.
Berlin finally retired in the 1960s, to lead a quiet life not far from his humble beginnings. A colleague once said of him: “Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music.” He died in his sleep on September 22, 1989, at the age of 101.