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May 11: There’s No Business Like Show Business

May 11, 2011

Irving Berlin (Israel Isidore Baline), the composer of “God Bless America,” “White Christmas,” “Easter Parade,” and many other anthems of mainstream American culture, was born on this date in 1888 in Mogilev, Byelorussia. He was a cantor’s son whose family resettled in New York when he was five. Berlin became a saloon singer as a boy, and then a singing waiter, meanwhile teaching himself to play piano (in only one key for his entire life). In 1911 he composed an international hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” which George Gershwin would call “the first real American musical work.” (“I frankly believe that Irving Berlin is the greatest songwriter that has ever lived,” Gershwin would testify. “His songs are exquisite cameos of perfection.”) The song launched Berlin on a meteoric rise that was uninterrupted until his death at 101. He composed over 1,500 songs (at least five dozen of which are instantly recognizable), wrote scores for nineteen Broadway shows and eighteen Hollywood films, sold more than 50 million copies of “White Christmas” and earned more than $10 million for the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts by donating the royalties to “God Bless America.”

“The career of Irving Berlin and American music were intertwined forever-American music was born at his piano.” —Isaac Stern

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