December 25, 2018
During the course of his life, this songwriter published some 1,500 songs. Twenty five of his songs reached the top of the charts but it was one song in particular which, arguably, is the most popular song ever written. The song? White Christmas. The songwriter? Irving Berlin.
First, about White Christmas. Its inaugural performance occurred on December 25, 1941 during Bing Crosby’s Kraft Music Hall broadcast. The following year, after being released as a single to promote the movie Holiday Inn, it catapulted to the top of the Your Hit Parade music chart and remained popular for decades. From the Infallible Wikipedia:
“In 1942 alone, Crosby’s recording spent eleven weeks on top of the Billboard charts. The original version also hit number one on the Harlem Hit Parade for three weeks, Crosby’s first-ever appearance on the black-oriented chart. Re-released by Decca, the single returned to the No. 1 spot during the holiday seasons of 1945 and 1946 (on the chart dated January 4, 1947), thus becoming the only single with three separate runs at the top of the U.S. charts. The recording became a chart perennial, reappearing annually on the pop chart twenty separate times before Billboard magazine created a distinct Christmas chart for seasonal releases.”
In all, there have been over 500 recorded versions of the song and the Bing Crosby version alone has sold over 50 million copies worldwide. This makes it the most purchased record ever, eclipsing Elton John’s Candle In The Wind tribute to Princess Diana, at 33 million copies, a distant second.
In addition to 1942’s Holiday Inn, it was also showcased in the same titled 1954 movie White Christmas.
Now on to Irving Berlin. Born in Imperial Russia in 1888, his family immigrated to the United States when he was five. His story is a classic rags to riches. The family of 10 lived in the ghettos of New York and a young Berlin quit school at age 13, left home, and took up residence in a lodging house where hundreds of homeless boys lived.
Berlin found himself drawn to the music world and soon began to earn a few coins from performing popular songs of the day in the saloons on the Lower Eastside. Also from the Infallible Wikipedia:
“Berlin learned what kind of songs appealed to audiences, writes (biographer Laurence) Begreen: ‘well-known tunes expressing simple sentiments were the most reliable.’ He soon began plugging songs at Tony Pastor’s Music Hall in Union Square and in 1906, when he was 18, got a job as a singing waiter at the Pelham Cafe in Chinatown. Besides serving drinks, he sang made-up ‘blue’ parodies of hit songs to the delight of customers.
Biographer Charles Hamm writes that in Berlin’s free time after hours, he taught himself to play the piano. Never having lessons, after the bar closed for the night, young Berlin would sit at a piano in the back and begin improvising tunes. His first attempt at actual songwriting was ‘Marie From Sunny Italy,’ written in collaboration with the Pelham’s resident pianist, Mike Nicholson, from which he earned 37 cents in royalties. A spelling error on the sheet music to the published song included the spelling of his name as ‘I. Berlin.’”
He achieved true commercial success with the 1911 song Alexander’s Ragtime Band which inspired a national dance craze. He wrote hundreds of songs by 1918 and in 1919 had his next breakout tune: A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody.
A string of popular melodies followed and then in 1938 came the release of his biggest hit to date, God Bless America. From the Infallible Wikipedia:
“Berlin’s daughter, Mary Ellin Barrett, states that the song was actually ‘very personal’ for her father, and was intended as an expression of his deep gratitude to the nation for merely ‘allowing’ him, an immigrant raised in poverty, to become a successful songwriter. ‘To me,’ said Berlin, God Bless America was not just a song but an expression of my feeling toward the country to which I owe what I have and what I am.’ The Economist magazine writes that ‘Berlin was producing a deep-felt paean to the country that had given him what he would have said was everything.’”
Most fascinating to me is what Berlin himself said about his writer’s work ethic. It’s a philosophy which resonates. One last citation from the Infallible Wikipedia:
“According to Saul Bornstein (a.k.a. Sol Bourne, Saul Bourne), Berlin’s publishing company manager, ‘It was a ritual for Berlin to write a complete song, words and music, every day.’ Berlin has said that he ‘does not believe in inspiration,’ and feels that although he may be gifted in certain areas, his most successful compositions were the ‘result of work.’ He said that he did most of his work under pressure. He would typically begin writing after dinner and continue until 4 or 5 in the morning. ‘Each day I would attend rehearsals,’ he said, ‘and at night write another song and bring it down the next day.’
Not always certain about his own writing abilities, he once asked a songwriter friend, Victor Herbert, whether he should study composition. ‘You have a natural gift for words and music,’ Mr. Herbert told him. ‘Learning theory might help you a little, but it could cramp your style.’ Berlin took his advice.”
In the course of his lifetime – Berlin died on September 22, 1989 at age 101 – he wrote over 1500 songs! Of course not all of them were published. Berlin, however, should be considered America’s songwriter and generations to come will, no doubt, enjoy many of his songs.
Although I am positive I had heard White Christmas before, my association with the song will forever be from a Christmas day sometime in the mid-1970’s. Our family’s tradition was to have Christmas dinner either at our house or at our cousin’s house. They lived just a block away and that particular year it was at their house. My grandparents were in attendance also and late in the afternoon White Christmas came on the TV. I can still see in my mind’s eye my grandfather sitting in a rocking chair which had been pulled up in front of the TV. The kids: myself, my sister Susan and our cousin’s Susan and Tim, gathered around also to watch.
I was captivated by the movie and have watched it many times since then. I even have a VHS tape version in my collection. But the thing which most sticks in my mind from that day was how my grandfather, during the final scene when they sing White Christmas, wiped away a couple tears and said “they just don’t make them like that anymore.”
Indeed, Grandpa, they do not. God Bless America and God Bless Irving Berlin. Wonderful Christmas to everyone, and may yours be merry and bright!
What’s a Tuesday Newsday article without a couple links: