Irving Berlin leads the chorus aboard the USS Arkansas, 1944
This is one of those names you’ve heard for so long, you probably have very little idea what his actual contribution to music was. So we’ll put it in very simple terms:
Irving Berlin wrote the three most significant songs in the history of American pop.
That statement may raise a few eyebrows among the cognoscenti, so we’ll proceed with the rest of the story.
Alexander’s Ragtime Band
Irving Berlin wrote what is generally accepted as the very first example of “American Popular Song,” a tune called “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” in 1911. It combined march, folk influences, and the syncopation of a radical new thing called ragtime into a melting pot of style that was the first to be uniquely American in sound. Ragtime music was more or less scandalous at the time, much like the blues in 1945, rock and roll in 1956, punk rock in 1979, or hip-hop in 1995. None gained mainstream acceptance until they were blended or softened with more familiar styles. Pure musicians would say each is watered-down, but the fact is that it sells the most records.
Because Berlin was a Tin Pan Alley composer at the time, it is likely that others preceeded him in blending styles into a more approachable, popular sound. Perhaps, but certainly “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” was the first to do it successfully. Survey 100 musical historians and you may get a number of different answers, but the overwhelming majority will agree, this was the beginning of the pop idiom.
To fully comprehend the significance of “Alexander’s”, you have to understand that this song had a presence on the charts for five straight decades. According to Newsweek Magazine,
- 4 different versions of the tune charted at # 1, # 2, # 3 and # 4 in 1911.
- Bessie Smith’s version made the top 20 in 1927.
- Louis Armstrong made the top 20 with it in 1937.
- A duet by Bing Crosby and Connee Boswell hit #1 in 1938.
- Johnny Mercer charted a swing version in 1945.
- Bing Crosby recorded another duet version, and hit the top-20 in 1947 with Al Jolson.
- Nellie Lutcher put it on the R&B charts in 1948.
- Bob Wills put it on the c&w charts in the same decade.
- Ella Fitzgerald scored with it in 1958, and received a Grammy for her Irving Berlin anthology in 1959.
God Bless America
This tune was originally penned by Berlin in 1918 as part of a musical revue called “Yip Yip Yaphank”, but he canned it because it didn’t fit with the rest of the show. Legend has it that Berlin was so moved by Hitler’s invasion of Europe in 1938 that he resurrected “God Bless America”, re-wrote the lyrics, and introduced it as a plea for peace on Armistice Day. Sung by the great Kate Smith, it was an immediate hit and had millions of Americans calling for this to be our new National Anthem.
Today, “God Bless America” is identified with memorial services, the seventh inning stretch, and is easily the most popular patriotic song in post 9-11 USA.
Musically speaking, it is easy to understand why this “pop” song eclipses the “Star Spangled Banner” in terms of stirring emotion. Francis Scott Key’s poem is set to music that is “through composed.” In other words, the music has a beginning and an end, with repetitive themes but no repetitive verse/chorus typical of American pop. It’s why so many performers find our national anthem to be so inexplicably difficult to sing! The “through music” of “The Star Spangled Banner” is of a European origin, while the verse/chorus form of “God Bless America” makes more sense to Americans…because of what Irving Berlin started with “Alexander’s.” As all American pop music is a bit of a melting pot, “God Bless America” borrows heavily from an old Jewish folk song, combined with a Sousa-esque march tailored to musical theatre.
It’s fitting that one of the most beloved patriotic songs in a nation of immigrants was written by an immigrant. So it’s also fitting that the most stirring version since Kate Smith’s original is a recent recording by Canadian Celine Dion.
While “God Bless America” did not have the overwhelming chart success of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” or the next selection, it still ranks as one of the three most significant songs in the history of American Pop due to its longevity. “Happy Birthday” is the only song performed more frequently today. No other song has shown such sustained popularity for 70 years.
If ever a tune defined American Popular Song, this is it. It doesn’t break any ground, and it doesn’t fit in any specific style. It just sells records — lots of them. “White Christmas” is in fact the largest selling record of all time. It was believed to be eclipsed in the late 1990s when the Elton John/Bernie Taupin penned “Candle in the Wind (England’s Rose)” exploded on the worldwide market in the wake of Princess Diana’s untimely passing. But add in unknown sales from the 1940s, album cuts, compilations, and sales in the time since, and Bing Crosby’s version of “White Christmas” remains the biggest seller of all time. That doesn’t include sales of extremely popular versions by The Beach Boys, Elvis, The Drifters, Alan Jackson, Andy Williams, and on and on.
Consider the song’s chart run during a string of holiday seasons…
- 1942 — #1 (11 weeks)
- 1943 — #2
- 1944 — #1
- 1945 — #1
- 1946 — #1
- 1947 — #2
- 1948 — #3
- 1949 — #3
- 1950 — #2
- 1951 — #2
- 1952 — #3
- 1953 — #2
- 1954 — #1
…and that’s the all-around Pop chart, not a much narrower “Holiday” chart. It is unlikely that any single will consecutively chart for a dozen years, let alone reach the top 3 positions. Perhaps the day will come when “White Christmas” is no longer a holiday standard, but that won’t happen in our lifetime. For his part, Berlin always thought it ironic that the most popular Christmas song was penned by a Jew, and he felt the same way about his classic “Easter Parade.”
Irving Berlin’s Legacy
So we’ve talked about the first American popular song, the most enduring pop song, and the largest selling pop song…without question, Irving Berlin composed three of the most significant songs in the history of the genre.
But his legacy goes so far beyond those three numbers, in fact the 3,000 songs Berlin wrote have shaped all of the musical styles we know today, from rap to reggae, country to rock. Songs from “Annie Get Your Gun” (featured in the video box above) were scattered on the top ten for a decade or more. Willie Nelson’s version of “Blue Skies” is an undeniable classic. Christina Aguilera hammered out a compelling duet of “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” with Tony Bennett. And we can only imagine the grin on Irving’s face the first time he saw Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle hoofing and singing “Puttin’ on the Ritz”.