Always

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Like most baby boomers, I grew up hearing his songs and taking them for granted. I never gave a thought to who Irving Berlin was or how he had come to write the music that flowed through our lives. In the 1970s I saw a newspaper photograph of him singing “God Bless America” in the Nixon White House during Watergate and immediately consigned both him and the song to the “wrong” side.

 

Like most baby boomers, I grew up hearing his songs and taking them for granted. I never gave a thought to who Irving Berlin was or how he had come to write the music that flowed through our lives. In the 1970s I saw a newspaper photograph of him singing “God Bless America” in the Nixon White House during Watergate and immediately consigned both him and the song to the “wrong” side.

When I became a singer specializing in American popular song, I still resisted his appeal—this time not because of his politics but because of his success. By now I knew he had more hits than any of the other songwriters, and although in my performances I’d throw in a couple of songs from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals, cute rhythm numbers like “Puttin’ on the Ritz” and “Cheek to Cheek,” I gravitated to writers I didn’t think were as famous as they deserved to be, like Harry Warren and Yip Harburg and Leo Robin.

I’d seen pictures of Irving Berlin on sheet-music covers. A small man with slicked-back dark hair and heavy brows that gave him a stern look, he was always peering out from behind a piano. Nothing in his appearance or his lyrics made me curious to know more about him. I’d noticed that of the top five songwriters, only he and Cole Porter wrote both words and music. I adored Cole Porter for his instantly recognizable style—witty, sophisticated, dirty—but wrote off Irving Berlin as some old guy who had written a lot of songs and got lucky. Then, in reading about Porter—a wealthy, Yale-educated Midwesterner who hobnobbed with royalty in the nightclubs of Paris—I discovered that as a songwriter he was considered a laughingstock and an amateur until he was into his late thirties. The one music professional to encourage him was Irving Berlin; he got Porter the show that launched his career. Berlin, who grew up in a Lower East Side tenement, had engineered a major career break for a potential competitor who had been born with a silver spoon in his mouth. I started to like this guy.

 

Twenty years had passed since I’d first begun singing professionally. A whole new generation was coming to appreciate the great standards of the 1930s and 1940s. I’d had some experiences in life and love and felt ready to add some of Berlin’s torch songs to my repertoire: “How Deep Is the Ocean,” “Better Luck Next Time,” “Say It Isn’t So,” “How About Me?” I found their complex melodies and evocative lyrics so different from his swing songs that they might have been by another writer. Browsing through a friend’s sheet-music collection, I discovered in an original copy of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” some extra verses and choruses that made that brassy warhorse a whole new song for me, a somber hymn to survival, a torch song about life. I started doing a slow version of it, and every time I sang a sad line, I felt closer to him. I decided to give at last what I had begrudged him all the years I had been performing his songs: my full attention.

 
I adored Cole Porter but wrote off Berlin as some old guy who had written a lot of songs and got lucky.

In the two decades before his death in 1989, Irving Berlin was said to be a crotchety old man who kept people from performing his work. Beverly Sills was refused the rights to Call Me Madam . Steven Spielberg didn’t get to use the 1925 song “Always” in his movie of that name. Berlin was the only songwriter who refused to have even a single bar of his music reprinted in Alec Wilder’s definitive book American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950 . In his biography of Berlin, As Thousands Cheer , Laurence Bergreen writes that when Wilder’s collaborator, James Maher, told Berlin that Harold Arlen and Richard Rodgers were allowing use of their music, Berlin responded: “You know, you guys are lying to me. I goddamn well don’t believe for one minute that they let you use their music. That’s bullshit!”

Once he was gone, his publishing company reversed his policy, and Irving Berlin shows and tributes popped up everywhere. Along with other singers of standards I was sent, unsolicited, a handsome six-volume set of his work: Ragtime and Early Songs, Novelty Songs, Ballads, Broadway Songs, Movie Songs , and Patriotic Songs .

As I read through every song, I began to see his versatility as a gift rather than as cause for suspicion. His lyrics, which I’d always found well crafted but plain, now struck me as purposely simple and direct. And if he didn’t give much of himself in his songs, I now saw it as a conscious choice rather than an artistic shortcoming. In scope, quantity, and quality his work was amazing.