Yesterday was the anniversary of Irving Berlin’s birth, and Jonathan Schwartz celebrated it all day on his Sirius/XM Satellite Radio channel, playing Berlin songs by artists ranging from Kate Smith to Susannah McCorkle.
Berlin was a Jewish immigrant from Czarist Russia. Like the immigrants of his era, Berlin was an utterly prodigious worker. In his renowned account of American popular music, Alec Wilder writes of Berlin: “Very poor in his youth, without musical training, he wrote and he wrote and he wrote.” He wrote anthems including “God Bless America” and “White Christmas” as well as the scores for musicals such as “Annie, Get Your Gun.”
Wilder writes that Berlin led a double life, as a pop song writer and as a theater writer. He was incredibly successful in both lives. Indeed, he and Sam Harris had the Music Box Theater built to house Berlin’s musicals. In the conclusion of his chapter on Berlin, Wilder renders a simple judgment: “Let it be said that he is the best all-around, over-all song writer America has ever had.”
The late Eva Cassidy led off with the Berlin chestnut “Cheek to Cheek” in her “Live at Blues Alley” set in 1996. (She also included Berlin’s “Blue Skies” in the set.) Struggling with a cold and with the melanoma that would take her life a few months later, Cassidy makes this reminder of a vanished age sound like one very cool song.
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