The Irving Berlin Readerby: Benjamin Sears
IRVING BERLIN HAD A SOCKO surprise for the opening night audience of 1915’s Stop! Look! Listen!, his second full-length Broadway score. There was no bigger songwriter working the street than Berlin, then 27 years old and four years into his reign as Tin Pan Alley kingpin. He had established himself with several solid hits even before his first mega-hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” sold two million copies in 1911. In 1913, a profile in Green Book Magazine praised him as “beyond all question the world’s most consistently successful writer of popular songs,” whose consistent success was “absolutely without precedent.” By 1915, he had the clout to pull together a stunt so splashy that it’s hard to imagine its equivalent today.
Berlin and producer Charles Dillingham had packed Stop! Look! Listen! with such once lustrous, now-forgotten singers and comedians as Gaby Deslys, Walter Wills, Florence Tempest, Marion Sunshine, and Harry Fox. But on opening night, an even bigger star, not listed in the program, waited in the wings. With the closing number under way, “Everything in America Is Ragtime,” no less than John Philip Sousa marched his celebrated brass band onstage, playing the song. The house went wild. Gaby Deslys, the leading lady, was thunderstruck and stopped singing until Sousa urged her to continue. Berlin and Dillingham hadn’t let the cast in on the surprise.
The Sousa anecdote comes from Jeffrey Magee’s Irving Berlin’s American Musical Theater, the first book-length study of his theatrical work; the Green Book Magazine piece appears in The Irving Berlin Reader, a career-spanning anthology of writings on Berlin edited by Benjamin Sears. Taken together, the two books suggest that we have barely begun to apprehend the scale and scope of Berlin’s career. Most people know Berlin as one of the top contributors to the Great American Songbook, a master of the love ballad and the rhythm song, and the author of “White Christmas” and “God Bless America,” ubiquitous cultural phenomena that transcend the status of “hit songs.” Usually considered alongside other Great American Songbook composers (such as George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Harry Warren, Hoagy Carmichael, and Fats Waller) and lyricists (like Ira Gershwin, Porter again, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein II, Yip Harburg, Johnny Mercer, Dorothy Fields, Al Dubin, and Andy Razaf), Berlin certainly belongs in this company, perhaps even at the head of it. But even this picture fails to capture his dominance over the popular music of the 1910s and early 1920s — as a songwriter, vaudeville star, publisher, theater owner, and impresario — or the cultural authority he wielded later in his career.
Berlin’s longevity and adaptability were unique: he started before all of the above-named songwriters except for Kern, and outlasted most of them, too. The distance Berlin traveled from his first self-invention to his last may have been as great as any popular songwriter. His ragtime-era songs were the rough equivalent of early rock and roll.
“My Wife’s Gone to the Country (Hurrah! Hurrah!),” was as noisy, vulgar, and sexual in 1909 as Billy Riley and The Little Green Men bellowing “My gal is red hot / Your gal ain’t doodley-squat” in 1957. A Jewish refugee from the Russian pogroms whose famil...read more