Irving Berlin: A Life in Song

Philip Furia, Author Schirmer Trade Books $25 (272p) ISBN 978-0-02-864815-6
The songwriting accomplishments of Irving Berlin (1888-1989) are staggering: ""Most songwriters dream of having a single hit song in a lifetime. More than half--451--of Berlin's songs became hits, and 282 of these"" reached the Top Ten, according to Furia, an English professor at the University of North Carolina, in this brisk, enjoyable biography. Born Israel Baline in Russia, Berlin moved to New York City with his Russian-Jewish family at age five, learning songwriting fundamentals as a singing waiter in a Chinatown bar/brothel. By age 23, he was a rich wunderkind with some 200 hit songs, and hundreds more to follow. How could Berlin, who had no formal music education and who played the piano in just one key, so quickly achieve the perfect marriage of music and words in classics like ""White Christmas,"" ""Easter Parade,"" ""God Bless America"" and ""There's No Business Like Show Business""? Furia credits Berlin's innate genius, rigorous perfectionism and flair, perhaps greater than any other American songwriter's, for creating so many works that are both timeless and evocative of a specific era. He effectively portrays Berlin as a lonely, hardworking dynamo who composed almost until the day he died, yet who spent his last years as a bitter recluse, and convincingly identifies his broader achievements: completing the Americanization of the Broadway musical with Annie Get Your Gun (1946), revitalizing Tin Pan Alley and shepherding songwriting from Broadway to Hollywood. Scores of photos enliven a narrative studded with cameos of such luminaries as Fred Astaire, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Florenz Ziegfeld, P.G. Wodehouse and Dorothy Parker, to name a few. (Nov.)
Reviewed on: 11/02/1998
Release date: 11/01/1998
Genre: Nonfiction
Discover what to read next