Irving Berlin was born as Israel Baline in Russia in 1888. In 1893, Mr. Baline relocated his eight children and wife to New York City. Irving's father died when he was eight and the entire family went to work, in order to support each other. Irving became a newspaper boy and received a small amount of extra money from passers-by that enjoyed his singing on the paper route. On his first day as a newspaper boy, Irving found himself captivated by a large ship leaving for China. He was so enthralled by the sight that he was not aware of a swinging crane. The crane knocked the oblivious boy into the water. He was fished out of the water and, despite the frightening experience, he was still clinging tight to the five pennies in his hand from that day's wages.
Eventually, Irving joined a group of nomad singers. The young group of boys visited the saloons and sang to the customers with the hope that a few pennies would be tossed their way. At the age of eighteen, he received a job as a singer waiter at the Pelham Cafe in Chinatown. The boy made up spoofs of popular songs to amuse the customers. In his free time, he attempted to teach himself how to play the piano. He also made an effort at songwriting with the restaurant's regular piano player. Around this time, he began to use the pseudonym Irving Berlin because it was easier for people to remember. One night at a saloon Berlin sang "Yankee Doodle Boy." At the end of his performance, the entire joint burst into applause at the Jewish immigrant that was showing his pride of being American.
In 1908, when he was twenty, Irving found a job in the Union Square neighborhood at a saloon. At that job, he was able to work in partnership with other songwriters including Ted Snyder, George A. Whiting, and Edgar Leslie. In 1909, he received a job as a staff lyricist with the Ted Snyder company.
Irving's first hit song was entitled "Alexander's Ragtime Band". It was, at first, a failure. It was performed a number of times as an instrumental and the audiences didn't respond to it. However, when Irving added lyrics to the song, it was played in another Broadway Review and Variety news weekly declared it "the musical sensation of the decade." "Alexander's Ragtime Band" gave new life to ragtime music and inspired a national dance fad.
Berlin wrote songs that appealed to the average American. He used uncomplicated, simple, and direct lyrics. He also wrote songs out of his own sadness. For example, he wrote the ballad "When I Lost You" about his wife that died of typhoid fever. By 1918 Irving had written hundreds of songs and was producing a few new hits each week!
He was drafted into the army in 1917, at the start of World War I. The army employed Berlin to write patriotic songs. While at Camp Upton in New York he wrote the musical "Yip Yip Yaphank" that paid tribute to the United States Army. The show was on Broadway by the following summer and Berlin himself even performed in it!
In 1921, after the war, Berlin, in partnership with Sam Harris, built the Music Box Theater.
Berlin had many, many hits throughout the years including, "Blue Skies", "Puttin' on the Ritz", and "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm", but his biggest hit was "God Bless America." The title was a phrase taken from his mother. In 1938, Katie Smith's manager asked Berlin if he had any patriotic songs that Katie could sing to mark the 20th Anniversary of Armistice Day. The great song became like a second national anthem, especially with the onset of World War II.
Berlin wrote many patriotic songs during World War II, just like he had during the first World War. He wrote another stage show called "This is the Army." It was shown in Broadway and Washington D.C. and later on military bases throughout the world. He gave all profits to the Army Emergency Relief Fund. In 1943, the play was adapted into a movie, starring Ronald Reagan and Joan Leslie.
After the show, he returned home in need of rest but instead took on writing the music and lyrics for the show "Annie Get Your Gun."
Berlin produced a few more shows after this and then retired from songwriting a few years later. He definitely had great love for this country!