Written by Irving Berlin and made famous by Bing Crosby, White Christmas is the quintessential Christmas song of mid-20th century American popular music. It inspired musicals and numerous renditions by various artists, and its popularity remains unchanged to this day.
Irving Berlin – A Life For Music
Irving Berlin was born Israel Beilin on May 11, 1888 as one of eight children to Jewish parents in what is now Byelorussia. Beilin's place of birth is unknown, but it is possible that Beilin was born in Tolochin (Byelorussia) where the family had been living for some time, barely scraping by on his father's meager income. Sweeping across Russia like a wildfire, violent pogroms fueled by severe anti-Jewish sentiments made life for the Beilin family increasingly difficult, eventually resulting in emigration to the United States where they arrived in New York in 1893.
Only three years after the Beilins had arrived in America, Israel's father Moses died unexpectedly, leaving the family to struggle with even greater hardships. Young Israel, who was already somewhat of a troublemaker, had considerably less parental supervision after his father's death and ended up running away from home, roaming the streets of New York. To support himself, Beilin first worked odd jobs such as delivering the paper, and later singing in cafes around town. Judging by his ragged clothes and street urchin life style, nobody could have guessed that the boy would go on to become one of the most important songwriters of the 20th century.
It was in one of those questionable cafes that Beilin was “discovered” and given work to entertain the guests in popular vaudeville hang outs – most certainly not the kind of environment his cantor father would have liked to see him in. In 1906 Beilin landed a job in the fashionable Pelham Café crooning little ditties while serving espressos, which earned him quite a reputation amongst the establishment's customers. Seizing the opportunity, Beilin who could neither read nor write musical notes taught himself to play the piano. However, given his complete lack of musical education he only ever played the black keys, but this did not keep him from writing his first song in 1907, “Marie From Sunny Italy”, which was even published. The publication of his first hit also earned him his new name, Irving Berlin which was the result of a drunken editor mixing up a few letters while spelling out his name. Beilin took a liking to the anglicized version of his birth name, and from that day forward used it as his pseudonym.
Berlin's “Marie from Sunny Italy” started off his incredibly prolific career as a writer and composer, resulting in over 1000 published songs. Despite his exceptional creative talent he never learned to read or write notes, nor to play the piano properly. He composed solely by ear, and his works were put into notes by various equally gifted arrangers. He even had a special pedal installed on his piano which would allow him to play only in flat scales, but transpose the music to other scales.
Building on the success, Berlin kept on writing lyrics and composing music until finally in 1911 he saw his international breakthrough with “Alexander's Ragtime Band”, his first real smash hit. America had the Ragtime fever, and it fell in love with Berlin's song, which sold over a million times in a matter of a few short months. Berlin had made it big. His luck seemed complete when in 1912 he married his sweetheart Dorothy Goetz. The newlyweds went off on what was supposed to be a romantic and exciting honeymoon in Cuba, but married bliss was not to last as Dorothy became seriously ill with typhoid and succumbed to the disease upon their arrival back home in New York. Berlin was utterly devastated, and immortalized his grief in the melancholic ballad, “When I Lost You”.
After the sad loss of his wife, Berlin buried himself in work, creating Broadway shows galore. During WWI Berlin, who was famous for his ardent love for his new homeland felt a strong urge to support the troops in more than just one way. He volunteered with the Army and wrote numerous tunes to uplift the soldiers' morale as well as a show that produced several smash hits.
The post-war years saw Berlin's continued rise to the very top of American popular music, including the establishment of his own publishing company and a music theater, The Music Box with his business partner Sam Harris. His personal life took a turn for the better as well when he started a passionate but highly controversial relationship with Ellin Mackay, a New York socialite from a wealthy and prominent family. Mackay's father was so displeased with their affair that he sent his daughter to Europe in the hope of putting an end to the undesired relationship. The maneuver had the opposite effect though, with Mackay and Berlin eloping as soon as Mackay set foot on American soil again in 1926.
In the 1930's, technical developments in the movie industry heralded the golden age of Hollywood, and Berlin soon became the go-to songwriter and composer of choice for many of Hollywood's top directors and producers. It was his creative partnership with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers that produced timeless classics, including the perennial favorite “Cheek to Cheek”.
America's involvement in World War II instilled an even greater sense of patriotism in Irving Berlin, who gave a song he had originally written during WWI a makeover and published it as “God Bless America”, which to this day is the quintessential tune expressing true patriotism and love of country. Berlin, who composed a very successful Broadway Show featuring life in the military as well as numerous songs to entertain the troops during the dark days of war, donated all earnings to various non-profit organizations. It was also during this time that Berlin wrote and composed what would become one of the greatest secular holiday songs of all time, “White Christmas”. The themes expressed in it – sentimental notions of family, home, holidays, and love – all corresponded to people's longings at the time for a better world without the daily horrors of war.
Berlin continued to write lyrics and compose music with great success well into the 1960's, producing one smash hit after another. His outstanding career and philanthropic efforts were rewarded with numerous high distinctions such as an Academy Award for Best Song in 1942, the Army's Medal of Merit (awarded in 1945 by President Truman), a Congressional Gold Medal (awarded for “God Bless America” in 1954 by President Eisenhower), a Tony Award in 1963, and the Freedom Medal (awarded in 1977 by President Ford). Berlin's wife Ella died aged 85 in 1988, and only a year later Irving Berlin passed away in New York on September 22, 1989 at the very old age of 101. He will forever be remembered as the musical genius who wrote such unforgettable music as “Blue Skies”, “Puttin' On The Ritz”, and “There's No Business Like Show Business”, to name just a few.
The Best Selling Song Of All Times
The exact circumstances of what motivated Irving Berlin to write it, and where and when it was composed will forever remain a secret that Berlin took to the grave. Berlin himself fueled rumors and speculations as to the specific details of its creation as he gave varying accounts about the date and birthplace of the ballad. It is widely assumed that it was written in either New York or LA, and possibly as early as during the late 1920's or early 1930's. Some suggest that he was on the West Coast while he wrote it, and missed his family and the snowy winters of his beloved New York.
It was rediscovered by Berlin when he wrote the musical score for the box office hit “Holiday Inn” which was released in the summer of 1942. Bing Crosby, who played in the movie alongside Fred Astaire introduced the public to it on Christmas Eve 1941. Sadly, the performance was not recorded. The official recording of the piece occurred on May 29, 1942 at Decca Studios in New York, with Bing Crosby being accompanied by the John Scott Trotter Orchestra and the Ken Darby Singers. It was published as a single at the same time “Holiday Inn” hit the movie theaters, but it didn't catch on until October 1942. From then on, the ballad's success was unstoppable, propelling it to the top of the charts multiple times and for weeks on end. The increasing popularity of the radio and of radio shows also played a key part in the success of the title.
Berlin himself once called the piece “the best song anybody ever wrote”, and so far, the sales numbers surely support his claim. The Bing Crosby recording of the piece has sold an estimated 50 million times, making it the number one selling record in history. Thirteen years after it was first used in a movie, it gained even more popularity when a film with the same title as the famous Christmas ballad starring Bing Crosby came out.
Numerous famous artists, including such icons as Frank Sinatra have issued their own renditions as a further testament to its unbroken popularity and timeless appeal. Exclusive sales of the record to this day have reached staggering amounts, garnering Berlin's heirs an immense fortune.