Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band." Copyrighted on March 18, 1911.
Israel Baline was born in Russia on May 11, 1888, one of eight children of Moses and Lena Lipkin Baline. His father was a butcher and a cantor in a Jewish synagogue, and provided the family with a meager existence. But one day in 1893, the Cossacks, a band of Russian soldiers, rampaged in on a pogrom, a riot against Jews. Israel's earliest memory was "lying on a blanket by the side of a road, watching (the) house burn to the ground. By daylight the house was in ashes."[The family made a quick exit, knowing that they were breaking the law by leaving without a passport.
The Balines smuggled themselves from town to town, and country to country, and finally boarded the S.S. Rhynland in Antwerp, Belgium bound for New York City. They eventually settled on Cherry Street on the Lower East Side in a basement apartment with no windows or hot water. Israel described his adjustment to life in New York as difficult, partly because “We spoke only Yiddish, and were conspicuous for our „Jew clothes‟.”
The Beilin family settled in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in a basement apartment with no windows or hot water. Israel "slept under tenement steps, ate scraps, and wore secondhand clothes." After his father died when he was only 8 years old, Israel sold newspapers and sang on the streets for pennies to help support his family. Though he could not read music he taught himself enough piano to begin writing songs. He sold his first song in 1907 at age 19, but a printer's error on the cover gave him the name, Irving Berlin.
|Irving Berlin in New York City, circa 1911.|
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Berlin described his motivation behind songwriting, "my ambition is to reach the heart of the average American." Never learning to read or play music he used a special piano to help him compose. In 1911 had his first big hit with "Alexander's Ragtime Band," which sparked an international dance craze. Over the years Berlin wrote dozens of plays and films. His song "Blue Skies" was featured in the first movie with sound, The Jazz Singer. Other hits included "White Christmas," "Annie Get Your Gun," and "There's No Business Like Show Business." He later co-founded The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. He retired from songwriting in 1962.
Berlin was also well-known for his charity and patriotism, stating "I owe all my success to my adopted country." He supported the war effort during both World Wars and established several foundations in his lifetime. He signed over all royalties from his song "God Bless America" to the Boy Scouts. Berlin was honored many times over the years. He was awarded the Army's Medal of Merit, a Congressional Gold Medal, the Freedom Medal and the Medal of Liberty. A private man all his life, he became a hermit in his later years. His last public appearance was at his 100th birthday celebration in 1988. He died from natural causes a year later.