Playlist: Five From Irving Berlin

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Irving Berlin (originally Isidor Baline, though there is uncertainty about his first name) quite possibly is the greatest songwriter in American history.

One measure of a composer’s influence is how his or her work survives. Is it forgotten? Do succeeding generations of artists re-imagine it? Long after he was out of the limelight — not dead, since he lived until 101 — Jerry Garcia regularly performed “Russian Lullaby” and Willie Nelson and others perform “Blue Skies.” That, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Indeed, it is impossible to really measure Berlin’s influence, since he was one of the main characters who created the context in which we think of American music. It even goes beyond music. Berlin’s story — from poor immigrant to rich and successful patriot — is a deep part of how this country thinks about itself.

Here is the start of Biography’s profile:

Irving Berlin (1888-1989) was the most successful songwriter of the 20th century. Though, like his contemporaries, he spent the better part of his career writing songs (usually both words and music) to be used in Broadway musicals, he is better remembered for the songs themselves than for the shows (and sometimes films) in which they were introduced. This is because Berlin was a master at the kind of music that flourished from the turn of the century until World War II, shows that were really just collections of production numbers, scenes, and novelty acts (organized vaudeville presentations, really) rather than the story musicals that became prevalent starting with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! in 1943. It is also because Berlin, who did not read music and could play the piano in only one key and only on the black notes (he used a special piano with a lever that changed keys for him and employed a musical secretary to notate his compositions), wrote songs, not scores. (Continue Reading…)

  1. Blue Skies Ella Fitzgerald 3:24
  2. Alexanders Ragtime Band Bessie Smith 3:00
  3. God Bless America Irving Berlin 2:07
  4. Cheek To Cheek Frank Sinatra 3:06
  5. Puttin' on the Ritz Fred Astaire 2:09
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