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Reaching for the Stars

June 1, 2006 By:
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Irving Berlin, whose long and active musical career began in the early years of the 20th century and lasted well in the 1970s, was one of the most successful songwriters in American history, noted for both the sheer number of pieces he wrote, as well as the amount of money he accumulated because of that abundance. He was a workaholic long before the term was ever coined and a perfectionist who judged his own work more harshly than any other. According to several of his biographers, he would generally write a song a day, though only one in 10 would be deemed worthy enough to publish.

Songwriters dream of having a hit tune some time in their careers; more than half of Berlin's output became hits, and nearly 300 of those reached the top 10 on the music charts. To add to this amazing record, 35 of his songs reached No. 1.

Berlin began his long string of winners with the astonishingly popular "Alexander's Ragtime Band." He then went on to write such cherished pop standards as "Blue Skies," "Puttin' on the Ritz," "White Christmas," "Easter Parade," "God Bless America," "You're Just in Love," and almost all the songs that filled the score of one of his most popular Broadway shows "Annie Get Your Gun" - "There's No Business Like Show Business," "Anything You Can Do" and "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly."

Even more astonishing was that this nearly endless flow of creativity was accomplished despite the fact that Berlin couldn't write music, had no musical training whatsoever - in fact, was wary throughout his life of such knowledge - and would eventually be able to play the piano in only one key. Berlin would play his melodies to trained musicians, and they would then transcribe them.

Alec Wilder, a songwriter himself and one of the foremost historians of American popular song, said of Berlin that though he was not necessarily "the best writer in each and every area of popular music … he [was] the best all-around, over-all songwriter America has ever had."

We say of almost all great artists that they have distinctive and quite unmistakable styles. But paradoxically, when it comes to Berlin, scholar William G. Hyland has noted, he was a master of his craft because he had no style. "He could write love songs, waltzes, ragtime, swing, jazz or novelties."

In addition, Berlin was a scrupulous businessman. Having grown up (as little Izzy Baline) in abject poverty on the Lower East Side of New York, he was determined to keep control of his own songs so that he could be certain to receive every penny they were worth. As such, he succeeded handsomely.

That said, you would imagine that Berlin would simply bask in his many accomplishments, and feel secure in his critical and fiscal success. The exact opposite was, of course, true. Like many another artist, demons pursued him, and he had no defenses against them. His drive to create also meant that he could never relax, for he feared that if he stopped composing for a moment, he might lose the source of his talent forever. The composer was once quoted as saying, "One day I'm going to reach up for it, and it's not going to be there."

He was hounded by anxiety, afraid that his fate would echo that of the famous 19th-century songwriter Stephen Foster, who, despite his considerable output, died in poverty at age 37. Often, fear and stress would overwhelm him to the point where he was immobilized by sadness. In fact, depression very nearly swallowed him up during the last 20 years of his life, when he could no longer compose as easily as he'd managed in his younger years, and when he also felt isolated from the entertainment business that had once sustained and nourished him on so many levels.

All of these topics fill a wonderful new coffee-table book, Irving Berlin's Show Business: Broadway Hollywood America, published recently by Abrams, with the publishing company's scrupulous eye for beauty and detail - all of these topics, however, except the darker side of Berlin's nature. For the most part - in fact, until almost the very last pages - this gorgeously illustrated volume is a no-holds-barred celebration of Berlin's legacy and how his great melodies continue to entertain us to this day.

Author David Leopold is identified as an authority on American show business, and he covers every facet of it as it affected Berlin's life. He appears to have raided every archive imaginable, and has brought back theater and film memorabilia that will thrill the aficionado and the novice alike. The illustrations are worth the price of the book alone, but there's lots more to revel in here.


 

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