Irving Berlin was an American composer and lyricist, widely considered one of the greatest songwriters in American history. His music forms a great part of the Great American Songbook. Born in Imperial Russia, Berlin arrived in the United States at the age of five. He published his first song, "Marie from Sunny Italy", in 1907, receiving 33 cents for the publishing rights, and had his first major international hit, "Alexander's Ragtime Band", in 1911. He also was an owner of the Music Box Theatre on Broadway. It is commonly believed that Berlin could not read sheet music, and was such a limited piano player that he could only play in the key of F-sharp using his custom piano equipped with a transposing lever.
"Alexander's Ragtime Band" sparked an international dance craze in places as far away as Berlin's native Russia, which also "flung itself into the ragtime beat with an abandon bordering on mania." Over the years he was known for writing music and lyrics in the American vernacular: uncomplicated, simple and direct, with his stated aim being to "reach the heart of the average American," whom he saw as the "real soul of the country." In doing so, said Walter Cronkite, at Berlin's 100th birthday tribute, he "helped write the story of this country, capturing the best of who we are and the dreams that shape our lives."
He wrote hundreds of songs, many becoming major hits, which made him famous before he turned thirty. During his 60-year career he wrote an estimated 1,500 songs, including the scores for 20 original Broadway shows and 15 original Hollywood films, with his songs nominated eight times for Academy Awards. Many songs became popular themes and anthems, including "Alexander's Ragtime Band", "Easter Parade", "Puttin' on the Ritz", "Cheek to Cheek", "White Christmas", "Happy Holiday", "Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)", and "There's No Business Like Show Business". His Broadway musical and 1943 film This is the Army, with Ronald Reagan, had Kate Smith singing Berlin's "God Bless America" which was first performed in 1938.
Berlin's songs have reached the top of the charts 25 times and have been extensively re-recorded by numerous singers including The Andrews Sisters, Perry Como, Eddie Fisher, Al Jolson, Fred Astaire, Ethel Merman, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Elvis Presley, Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Linda Ronstadt, Rosemary Clooney, Cher, Diana Ross, Bing Crosby, Sarah Vaughan, Ruth Etting, Fanny Brice, Marilyn Miller, Rudy Vallée, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Doris Day, Jerry Garcia, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Buble, Lady Gaga, and Christina Aguilera.
Berlin died in 1989 at the age of 101. Composer Douglas Moore sets Berlin apart from all other contemporary songwriters, and includes him instead with Stephen Foster, Walt Whitman, and Carl Sandburg, as a "great American minstrel"—someone who has "caught and immortalized in his songs what we say, what we think about, and what we believe." Composer George Gershwin called him "the greatest songwriter that has ever lived", and composer Jerome Kern concluded that "Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music."