The most commercially successful of all American songwriters during the first half of the twentieth century, Irving Berlin was neither American-born nor able to read or write music.
Berlin could play only the black keys of the piano, using a special lever to transpose out of F sharp and having an assistant transcribe the music. Born Israel Baline in Russia to a cantor and his wife, the child never received any real musical education; when the family came to the United States, his father abandoned music. Israel sang for pennies on the street and eventually got a job as a singing waiter, attracting attention with his risqué parodies of popular songs. His first published effort, "Marie From Sunny Italy," was a 1907 collaboration with the café's pianist; it was on this song's title page that he first used the name Irving Berlin. In 1908 came "Dorando," the first of some 1,500 songs for which Berlin would write both the words and music. His early songs were very much period pieces, ethnic and novelty songs, and the key to Berlin's success would be his ability to adapt to whatever style was popular at the time. His career ended only when he was unable to come to terms with rock & roll. Berlin's first major hit was "Alexander's Ragtime Band" in 1911. Soon, he was contributing to Broadway revues. Berlin was instrumental in establishing ASCAP, the composers' society, in 1914, and in 1919, he formed his own music publishing firm. In the 1920s, Berlin wrote such tremendously popular songs as "All by Myself," "Always," and "What'll I Do?" Hollywood beckoned as soon as talkies developed; Berlin's "Blue Skies" was incorporated into The Jazz Singer. Most notable among Berlin's film efforts was his work for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers vehicles, starting with Top Hat. During World War II, his wistful "White Christmas" became a top seller, and Berlin's career peaked in 1945 with the musical Annie Get Your Gun, which spawned "There's No Business Like Show Business." After the 1950 Broadway hit Call Me Madam, Berlin's career went into a slow decline and he essentially withdrew after the failure of his 1962 show Mr. President. Nevertheless, he could look back with satisfaction on a career that included the best-selling single in American history ("White Christmas"), the theme of the entertainment industry ("There's No Business Like Show Business"), and the "shadow" national anthem ("God Bless America").