"......he's the sort of apple pie type of composer that makes you want to stand up and bleat out a song whether you can sing or not........"
This quote, from Ginger Rogers, sums up the music of Irving Berlin for me rather better than the oft-quoted maxim of his contemporary Jerome Kern, who said in 1924 that "Irving Berlin has no place in American music.... he is American music ", a statement which sounds good, but is actually surprisingly parochial, perhaps even naive. What is remarkable about Kern's quote however is the fact that he said it before Berlin had written most of the songs for which he is now remembered.

The plain fact is that Irving Berlin was, and probably still is, the most succesful songwriter in American history, and his rise from unpromising beginnings in Siberian Russia in the late 19th century, via stints as song plugger and singing waiter on New York's Lower East Side to Broadway and Hollywood celebrity is a truly remarkable one, encapsulating as it does the whole ethos of the "American Dream".

His first popular success was way back in 1911 with Alexander's Ragtime Band, which blew away the sentimental ballads coming from Tin Pan Alley at the time. He followed this with the classics such as What'll I Do ?(1924) and Always (1925), In 1926 he gave us the wonderful, perennial ballad Blue Skies .

Perhaps his most creative period was the 1930's and 1940's, which saw the workaholic Berlin churn out a seemingly endless stream of uplifting, joyous hits for Broadway and Hollywood. One notable exception, which illustrates Berlin's versatility and sensitivity to serious issues is Supper Time from the 1933 review AS THOUSANDS CHEER . This haunting song is Berlin's response to a newspaper report of a lynching.

When compared with the likes of Gershwin and Cole Porter Berlin was an unsophisticated musician, and this is reflected in his music, which, although displaying an extraordinarily natural feeling for melody, harmony and form, has a largely insubstantial feel to it. On the other hand it is imbued with a "feelgood" factor, possessing charm in abundance and a wonderful light-hearted optimism, which is probably why it was such a phenomenal popular success, acting as an antidote to the backdrop of the Great Depression and the years of the Second World War.

Berlin lived to the ripe old age of 101. Sadly the insecurity of his early upbringing followed him to the end of his life, and he died a rather irascible recluse, never quite able to believe the enormity of his success ( or his bank balance.)