Jerome Kern was once quoted saying “Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music.” Berlin, a Russian immigrant turned patriotic American, was one of the most indelible songwriters of the 20th century. His first major hit song was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” in 1911, which made him a go-to composer on both Tin Pan Alley and Broadway. He and his partner Sam Harris built the Music Box Theatre in 1925, which is the only Broadway house ever built to accomodate the works of a songwriter. Over the course of 60 years, Berlin wrote so many songs that there is apparently some debate on the actual number (Time magazine cited 1250 as the total in 2001, but some sources put the total at 1,500). Here’s a list of 850 from Wikipedia.
The songs themselves are a part of the American fabric. For example there’s “Always,” “What’ll I Do?,” “Blue Skies,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” Annie Get Your Gun (“There’s No Business Like Show Business, etc), Call Me Madam (“You’re Just in Love, etc), “Easter Parade,” and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” to name only a few. He received the Best Song Oscar in 1943 for “White Christmas,” a Tony award for Best Score in 1951 for Call Me Madam (besting that year’s Best Musical, Guys and Dolls), a Congressional Gold Medal for “God Bless America,” the Presidential Medal of Freedom, lifetime achievement Tony and Grammy Awards, among countless other honors.
Berlin died on this day 20 years ago at the age of 101. As a tribute, here are Bernadette Peters and Peter Allen leading an immense, crowd pleasing production number paying tribute to the songwriter on the 55th Annual Academy Awards in 1983: