Israel Isidore Baline was born in the Russian village of Tyumen on May 11th, 1888. His family left in the mid 1890s to escape the persecution of the Jewish community and settled in New York City (biography.com). Israel dropped out of school at age thirteen (Kenrick 143). Baline was a street singer as a teen and in 1906 he got a job as a singing waiter in Chinatown (biography.com). The first song he ever had published was called “Marie From Sunny Italy” (biography.com). He wrote it in 1907 with Nick Nicholson writing the music. Baline’s name was misspelled on the sheet music as “I. Berlin” (biography.com). He decided to keep it and changed his name to Irving Berlin (biography.com) . It was in this way that the legend was born.
Not very long after changing his name Berlin became the co-owner of his own publishing firm (Kenrick 143). He decided to try composing his own music despite the fact that he couldn’t read musical notation and didn’t know much about the piano (143). He worked out his melodies by using only the black keys (143). He was musically illiterate and he couldn’t write the music he composed in his head (Horowitz 264). He would sing it to a musical secretary who would then write it down and play it back to him (264). He would help the secretary find the right harmonies and accompaniments until what he heard matched what was in his head (264). Most of his music sketches were typed out, either done by Berlin himself or one of his secretaries (264). The typed lyrics usually included annotations where he would cross out a word or write a replacement line over in the margins (264). Berlin reworked his songs many times before they were finished (264). He was also a list maker, like most lyricists are (264). His lyric sketch for “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better” included a list of attributes in the margin that Annie and Frank could challenge each other over (264). He would rework quatrains, couplets, or even one word at a time (264). He viewed his songs as work as much as he did art and was immensely disciplined to making them the best that they could be (264).
His first genre was ethnic comedy songs (143). He wrote a song about a ragtime orchestra in 1911 but didn’t get much of a response (143). Soon after the song’s publication, a popular vaudeville singer named Emma Carus sang the song in Chicago (143). “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” become the fastest selling sheet music in the United States only a few days (143). It was this song that helped America have a leading influence in the world’s pop culture (143). It also earned Berlin the title “The King of Ragtime” (143).
Berlin’s talents were soon in demand. In 1914 he was offered the chance to write the entire score for a new show called Watch Your Step which starred the popular married dance team Vernon and Irene Castle (143). This was Berlin’s first commision on a full score and he did not disappoint. Watch Your Step had the first Broadway score that included ragtime (Green...