Born in czarist Russia in 1888, Berlin (his given name was Israel Baline) spent his first few years of life in abject poverty. He lived in a hovel with a dirt floor, and in Ian Whitcomb’s book Irving Berlin and Ragtime America the future songwriter would recall only one memory from his childhood: his father “lying on a blanket by the side of a road, watching his house burn to the ground. By daylight the house was in ashes.” When the last czars instituted a brutal persecution of Russian Jews, the Balines left for America when Irving was just 5. When he was 8, the boy delivered newspapers to help the struggling family. But he could sing, too, and by the time he was 18, he was employed as a singing waiter. In 1907, he published his first song: “Marie from Sunny Italy.” The publishers misspelled his name, though: “I. Berlin,” the sheet music read. Irving opted to keep the moniker and became famous under it.
Berlin wrote tons of music, from “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (his first real hit) to “God Bless America,” an appropriately patriotic tune for this story. But many of his songs earned their most lasting fame in the movies, from “Blue Skies,” performed by Al Jolson in the first real “talkie,” The Jazz Singer, to the soundtrack for the Bing Crosby film White Christmas, and tons of others. His tune “Putting on the Ritz” even saw new life in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein.