This Sunday Elder Music column was launched in December of 2008. By May of the following year, one commenter, Peter Tibbles, had added so much knowledge and value to my poor attempts at musical presentations that I asked him to take over the column. He's been here each week ever since delighting us with his astonishing grasp of just about everything musical, his humor and sense of fun. You can read Peter's bio here and find links to all his columns here.
Israel Beilin (or Baline according to some) was born in Tolochin, in Russia and went to America when he was five. Somewhat later he acquired the name IRVING BERLIN.
Besides the hundreds of songs, Irv wrote the score of a couple of dozen Broadway musicals and 15 or so films. Pick the name of a singer out of a hat and she/he will have sung something of his songs. Here are just a few.
Alexander's Ragtime Band was one of his first hits, and one of his biggest. He wrote it in 1911 and he also performed it that year. Over time, many have recorded it, some several times. One (or two) is (are) BING CROSBY and AL JOLSON.
The version today was recorded in 1947.
I Got Lost In His Arms was written for the musical “Annie Get Your Gun” and was sung in that by Ethel Merman. Ethel is a long, long way from being my favorite singer, so I’m glad the ROSEMARY CLOONEY recorded it.
Several more people have recorded the song including, rather surprisingly to me, Suzi Quatro.
Blue Skies was written after Irv and his wife Ellin had had their first daughter. It’s an optimistic, forward looking song as befits that occasion. The song first saw light of day in a Ziegfeld production, and later Al Jolson performed it in the first talkie, “The Jazz Singer”.
It’s been recorded many times and been to the top of the charts quite often, including fairly recently when WILLIE NELSON recorded it (and other similar songs). Naturally, if Willie is around I’ll probably choose him.
There were several candidates for the song Heat Wave, but I narrowed it to two. I played them both for Norma, the Assistant Musicologist, and she instantly went with SOL K. BRIGHT & HIS HOLLYWAIIANS.
I was leaning in their direction as well, so it was unanimous.
Change Partners is a song that Irving wrote for the film “Carefree” in 1938, where it was sung by Fred Astaire. Since then there have been quite a few versions that made the charts. The one I’m interested in today came from considerably later, 1967, from an album that FRANK SINATRA and ANTÔNIO JOBIM recorded together.
It’s lucky Frank sang, as otherwise it sounded rather like elevator music to me.
Apparently, I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm is a Christmas song. It mentions icicles and snow and all that palaver. That doesn’t sound like Christmas where I live – all sunshine, shorts, T-shirts, drinking cool white wine in the shade. Anyway, I’ll just skip over that and let the MILLS BROTHERS warm you up.
Irv didn’t think the song Say It Isn't So was much good so he put it away in his bottom drawer. Somehow or other Max Winslow heard the song and took it along to Rudy Vallée who sang it on his radio program and made it a big hit.
Rather than a vocal version, I thought that the BENNY GOODMAN QUARTET captures it beautifully.
Like Nat King Cole down below, I’ve always preferred Benny in his quartet to the big band. Somebody must have liked the big band though, as they were very popular.
ROSEMARY CLOONEY makes a return visit, this time as a duet partner of GUY MITCHELL.
Irv wrote You're Just in Love for his musical “Call Me Madam” where it was sung by Ethel Merman and Russell Nype. As mentioned earlier, I’ll skip Ethel if I get the chance.
Fortunately, several other versions made the charts. Rosemary and Guy’s was the biggest seller, and the one I prefer.
Irv was rather fond of counterpoint, or “double songs”. The previous one is an example of that, as is this next one, Play a Simple Melody. The version I’m using was originally attributed to “Gary Crosby and Friend with Matty Matlock's All Stars”. Of course it was immediately obvious who his “friend” was.
Here are BING CROSBY and GARY CROSBY with the song.
It was difficult trying to select which version of What'll I Do to include, as several of my usual automatic inclusions were present; most notably Chet Baker and Julie London. In the end THE NAT KING COLE TRIO trumped them all.
His trio is the way I like Nat best, and this is a beautiful version.
As an indication of his longevity, I’ll end with a tribute, a song Irv didn’t write. It’s by IAN TYSON.
The song is Irving Berlin (Is 100 Years Old Today), and it shows his incredible influence in all genres of music.