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  • The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin
  • Edited by Robert Kimball
  • Format: Hardcover | ISBN: 9780679419433
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The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin

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Gathered together in one volume for the first time: all of the incomparable song lyrics of Irving Berlin, whose career and work are the most important and all-encompassing in the history of American popular music.

Berlin came from a poor immigrant family and began his career as a singing waiter, but by the time he was nineteen he was publishing his songs and quickly found fame with "Alexander's Ragtime Band" in 1911. In the extraordinary six decades that followed, Berlin wrote one popular hit after another: "Blue Skies," "Always," "Cheek to Cheek," "White Christmas," "God Bless America," "There's No Business Like Show Business," and many, many more. He also wrote a number of the classics of musical theater's Golden Age, climaxing with Annie Get Your Gun. He penned three Astaire and Rogers films--Top Hat, Carefree, and Follow the Fleet--as well as the scores of Holiday Inn, Easter Parade, and other movies. The breadth of his accomplishments is staggering.

Berlin's entire oeuvre is here--the lyrics of more than 1,200 songs (400 of which have never before appeared in print), along with anecdotal, historical, and musicological commentary and dozens of photographs.

This beautiful volume is an invaluable contribution to the understanding and enjoyment of popular music in our time.


from the Introduction

. . . Early in the morning of his one hundredth birthday, a group of friends and well-wishers stood outside Berlin's Beekman Place home in Manhattan and serenaded him quietly with "Happy Birthday" and his own "Always." He had been accorded the kind of tribute that Italian music lovers had given to Giuseppe Verdi, and he deserved no less for the lovely todays and tomorrows his work has brought to all of us.


My first telephone conversation with him was largely about his close friend and colleague Cole Porter.  He greatly enjoyed Cole, the book I edited with Brendan Gill in 1971, and called to express his appreciation and to reminisce about Porter. "We met during World War I," he told me. "I think it was at a party given in Greenwich Village by the theater producer Bessie Marbury. He played the piano and sang some of his own songs and surprised me by knowing many of my songs, including quite a few of my big catalogue of non-hits. Cole could write easily in any style and could parody anything. I used to plead with him not to write like me or anybody else. 'Write in your own style,' I often said to him."

"Cole and Linda Porter," he said, "were among our best friends. When Ellin and I got married and went over to Europe--we wanted to get away from all the publicity over our marriage--it was the Porters who looked after us in Paris and introduced us to their friends and protected us as best they could from reporters and photographers."

Over the years (Berlin and I were telephone friends for nearly twenty of them), people often asked what he was like. The restless energy I had encountered when I met him in 1962 at a performance of his musical Mr. President at Washington's National Theater was one of the first things that came to mind. He was down-to-earth and easy to talk to, smart, funny, shrewd, curious, enthusiastic, volatile. His interest in others was genuine; he was a big fan of people he liked and had an excellent memory, but only rarely chose to reminisce. His language was blunt, colorful, and occasionally peppered with profanity. He got upset when he thought people were trying to take advantage of him or were challenging his right to make artistic and business decisions about his own songs. Yet when artists performed his songs well or individuals wrote books or articles that he enjoyed, he was more than appreciative; his enthusiasm was heartwarming and deeply moving. All of us who were ever thanked by Irving Berlin know how deeply he expressed his gratitude.

Ideas, brainstorms--or angles as he liked to call them--poured out of him even in the final years of his life. His fellow composer and good friend Harold Arlen said that Berlin sent things airborne as if they were balloons and then usually popped them very quickly. When he heard singer Joan Morris's overdub of the countermelody to the refrain of "Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil," he became excited for a couple of days about putting together an album of his double songs--and then something else drew his attention.

He loved newspapers. He had sold copies of the New York World as a boy, often shivering through the wintry Gotham days, and newspapers played a big role in such shows as As Thousands Cheer and Miss Liberty. Veteran New York publicist Gary Stevens, who first met Berlin in 1941, remembers seeing him in front of Lindy's. "He asked me to come in and sit down with him," Stevens recalls, "while he went through, page by page, at a very fast clip, all the New York newspapers."

Stevens also tells a story that demonstrates Berlin's humor. "In the mid 1950s," Stevens recalled, "I walked into a Chinese restaurant on West Forty-ninth Street called Sun Luck West. The manager, Tom Chung, asked me a question. He said, 'A man comes here maybe three times a week. I think he must be a big Seventh Avenue manufacturer. He is sitting over there. Do you know him?' I glanced over to the area he pointed out. There was Irving Berlin finishing his dinner in the company of one of his daughters. Seeing that Berlin was just about finished with his meal, I walked over and said hello. He asked me to sit down, whereupon I recounted Chung's conclusion about who Berlin was. He put his glasses down on the table and said, 'Gary, that's very funny. Most people think I look like an accountant.'"

He also was very curious. He always asked what I was working on. When I mentioned Lorenz Hart, he sang "My Funny Valentine" and said he thought it was a perfect lyric. He gave equal praise to Ira Gershwin, offered an expressive interpretation of "A Foggy Day," and wanted to be certain I knew how great George Gershwin and his brother Ira were.

He particularly loved Jerome Robbins. "He knew how to correct something that was wrong but he also knew when it was better to leave things alone," commented Berlin about the director-choreographer. Berlin often said that he wanted to write one more show for his beloved Music Box, the Broadway theatre on West Forty-fifth Street that he had built with his partner, producer Sam Harris. While the show never materialized, Berlin had a plan: it would have old songs and new songs, Robbins would direct and choreograph, Arthur Laurents would write the book, and Goddard Lieberson would record it. (Lieberson noted that every time CBS Records--now Sony--which he headed, prepared to undertake a Berlin retrospective, Berlin would encourage it for a while, but ultimtately stop it, saying that it would be his obituary.)

We had many conversations about his shows. He happily agreed to let the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut, revive Louisiana Purchase, Miss Liberty, and Face the Music (the revival of the latter still hasn't happened) and sent me over to the town house he owned at 29 West Forty-sixth Street, which later was to house his music company, to look for the scores for the shows. There was no electricity on the top floor where the music was stored. I brought a large flashlight and wore old clothes. On the cluttered, dusty floors were battered file boxes, suitcases, steamer trunks, and old steel cabinets that housed the songs and memorabilia of his extraordinary career. After various visits Ernie, from Mr. Berlin's shipping department, and I carried some of the music back to the music company offices.

Although Mr. Berlin was cautious in allowing his lesser-known works to be heard again, preferring instead to champion his huge roster of hits, he gradually yielded to entreaties from me and others to encourage a wider rediscovery to take place. While he did not see the Goodspeed's revivals, for example, he was happy with the results, the positive press reports, and the good word-of-mouth.

Of course, he continued to nurture his standards. Every year, at Christmastime, he called daily to check the sales figures for "White Christmas," comparing them to results from past years. As he grew older, he continued to run his business as he had for decades. Entering the office was like being transformed into a time capsule, complete with old switchboard and stockroom. Most of his staff, including his secretary and office manager Hilda Schneider and his chief arranger Helmy Kresa (who had been with him since 1926) had grown old with him. He said that building his own business, the Irving Berlin Music Company, and gradually reacquiring all his earlier copyrights were among the smartest things he had done. When he was too frail to come to his office, his associates brought checks and papers for him to sign at his home on Beekman Place, where he and his wife lived in virtual seclusion, seeking the privacy they had craved when as a young married couple their romance had been one of the most publicized events of the 1920s. "We had more press attention at that time," he said, "than anyone could have wanted for a lifetime."


Once, when Berlin was in his early nineties, we had a long talk about what had happened to American popular music since the late fifties and early sixties. Berlin, who had thought about this a great deal, simply said, "It was as if I owned a store and people no longer wanted to buy what I had to sell." His daughter Mary Ellin Barrett recorded his comment in her book, Irving Berlin: A Daughter's Memoir: "Everything changed. The world was a different place. The death of President Kennedy, the Vietnam War, the social protest. Music changed, too. The Beatles and other groups reached audiences. I couldn't. It was time to close up shop."


Robert Gottlieb has been my editor and friend for over twenty years. When we began work on what became The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter, first published in 1983, he said there should be a series of the complete works of the great lyricists. When I mentioned this to Mr. Berlin and asked his permission to compile his lyrics for publication, he said, perhaps surprisingly, "All right, but not while I'm alive. When I'm gone, work with my wife and daughters." With his characteristic curiosity, the ninety-something Berlin fired many questions at me when the Cole Porter book was published. How would a publisher undertake such a book, he wanted to know; how would it be compiled and edited and produced.

The unusually large size of this book is a reflection of an extraordinary career that spanned more than eighty years and produced more than 1,250 lyrics, including 400 or so previously unpublished. They were gathered from the Berlin office files, published sheet music, unpublished copyright song files, and unpublished, uncopyrighted files. Some were found in a collection of manuscripts kept in a bank vault. Others came from scripts and recordings and from show and film files that included numbers not used in the productions. A few were located in Berlin's extensive office scrapbooks. Still others came from collectors. Many are individual songs from Berlin's Tin Pan Alley life. Those written for shows and films appear for the most part in the order in which they were first performed. Dropped and deleted songs follow the used material.

Hilda Schneider and I often spoke of her boss's aproval of a posthumous collection of his lyrics, and after his death she began work on it. (Hilda worked for Mr. Berlin for nearly fifty years, starting as a production secretary for This Is the Army.) So too did Linda Emmet, Mr. Berlin's middle daughter, who lives in Paris but commutes to New York for monthly family meetings. We began the project in 1991 with Hilda gathering and typing all of the approximately eight hundred published lyrics. Before Hilda's illness became terminal (she died of cancer in 1993), she started organizing and typing lyrics from the massive unpublished song files she had watched over for decades in her office.

Soon after Berlin's death, his daughters, with their typical generosity and sense of responsibility, decided to donate his song, production, and business files to the Music Division of the Library of Congress. Their gift was announced at a 1992 Library ceremony.

--Robert Kimball
Robert Kimball|Author Q&A

About Robert Kimball

Robert Kimball - The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin
Robert Kimball was educated at Yale College and Yale Law School. He has been the music critic of the New York Post and is the co-author or editor of several books on musical theater, including Cole, the celebrated book about Cole Porter that he edited with Brendan Gill. He also edited Knopf’s four previous books in the Complete Lyrics series. He is co-editor, with Robert Gottlieb, of Reading Lyrics. Mr. Kimball lives in New York.

Steve Nelson is a professor of musical theater at New York University and the producer of the Songwriter Series for the Library of Congress, which releases recordings of Broadway songwriters performing their own material. He is also the author of Only a Paper Moon: The Theatre of Billy Rose. Mr. Nelson lives in New York.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Robert Kimball and Linda Emmet, editors of The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin

To Linda Emmet:
Q: What was it like growing up with Irving Berlin—both as father and composer? How would you describe your father?

A: As I look back on my childhood, I think it was pretty normal. My parents discouraged us from thinking that we were in any way different or exceptional. They tried to protect us from publicity. After reading the old newspaper articles and interviews my father gave, I discovered that while always interested in promoting his work, he never exploited his family.

He was—like many fathers—absent at times, especially during the war years. But when he was home our life was much like other families.

To Linda Emmet:
Q: What were his musical influences? Did he encourage you and your siblings to play music?

A: It is difficult to determine his musical influences. The early one were perhaps a combination of the Jewish and the various ethnic popular music heard on the Lower East Side.

As for music at home, my earliest recollection is hearing my elder sister practicing the piano—we all took lessons.

To Robert Kimball:
Q: You have devoted your life and writing to some of musical theater’s greatest composers and lyricists. What do you think separated Irving Berlin from such musical masters as Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hammerstein, or the Gershwin brothers?

A: Berlin’s longevity, versatility and matchless ability to reflect social and cultural changes.

To Robert Kimball:
Q. In March of 1911 Irving Berlin wrote the famous “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and by1913, he was known as the “King of Ragtime.” How was he received by those musicians and composers who played ragtime long before he did?

A. Berlin wrote ragtime songs and did not, as Scott Joplin and many others did, write ragtime piano compositions. While some contemporaries did not feel that Berlin should be known as “The King of Ragtime,” they respected his achievement as a songwriter. Eubie Blake, for example, who first met Berlin in 1911, had a very high regard for him.

To Linda Emmet:
Q: You say that your father was absent a lot during your childhood, busy with frequent movie projects and traveling. Do you feel this had a profound effect on your relationship with him and the rest of your family?

A: I do not think my father’s absences affected relationships in our family. As I have written, children tend to be self-absorbed. I was an exception. I desperately wanted to be like everybody else. I remember once, when asked what my father did for a living, replying that he was a music publisher—a profession most resembling that of my friends’ fathers, who were bankers, doctors, lawyers, etc. ...

To Linda Emmet:
Q: Were there any discoveries for you, in the process of putting together this book?

A: This book contains nearly every lyric (or verse) my father ever wrote—many never published before. Many of these lyrics, which I had never seen were indeed a discovery. I hadn’t realized just how prolific he was until I started this project.

To Robert Kimball:
Q: Irving Berlin had a huge repertoire that few people, until now, realized. While putting this book together, did anything surprise you about Irving Berlin?

A: Not really as I knew him well before beginning work on The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin. Yet I am constantly surprised by how hard he worked on his songs.

To Robert Kimball:
Q: Jerome Kern once said, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music. Irving Berlin is American music.” What distinguished Berlin as “Americana” despite his strong Russian roots?

A: His use of American vernacular and his ability to write syncopated lyrics are among his achievements. Also, look at how much his songs teach us about the American experience in the 20th century.

To Linda Emmet:
Q: Unlike Sondheim, Kurt Weill and others, Irving Berlin wasn’t known for drawing out the dark side of his musical characters. He did, however, experience depression in his lifetime, particularly from the loss of his first wife, Dorothy Goetz, who died just a few months after their honeymoon from typhoid fever. Did your father ever talk about it?

A: My father had what the French call Pudeur—a combination of reserve and discretion. He never spoke to me about personal or intimate feelings. The death of his first wife must have been a sorrowful experience, one which I doubt he shared with anyone.

To Robert Kimball:
Q: Did Irving Berlin’s career move in a different direction after the heartbreak of losing his first wife?

A: No, it did not. Berlin wrote ballads before he wrote “When I Lost You,” (which was written shortly after her death) and he did not follow it with any major change in style or direction, or with any special attention to life’s profundities.

To Robert Kimball:
Q: How would you compare Berlin’s music with that of the musicals of today?

A: It is hard to compare Berlin’s music to today’s. After all, Berlin’s songs have endured for many decades; today’s songs need to be around for many more years to see if they will last.

To Robert Kimball:
Q: What do you think is the biggest change in musical theater now?

A: There are far fewer (original) musicals on Broadway today.

To Robert Kimball:
Q: What other projects are you working on now and in the near future?

A: I am editing The Complete Lyrics of Frank Loesser and would like to do a similar volume of the works of Johnny Mercer. I also hope to write a history of the American musical in the 1920s and plan a memoir of the struggle to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

To Linda Emmet:
Q: The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin is dedicated in the memory of Hilda Schneider, your father’s secretary from 1942 to 1989. Oftentimes a dedication is made to a family member, but Hilda worked with your father for over 45 years. Was she considered family?

A: Hilda was considered by all of us as a member of the family. Over the years she had preserved the archival material, the primary source of the book without which this project would have been virtually impossible. With devotion she worked on this book until shortly before she died.

To Robert Kimball and Linda Emmet:
Q: What is your favorite Irving Berlin song? Which song is the defining moment in his career as a master composer?

Linda: I have no single favorite Berlin song. He always believed that “God Bless America” was the most important song he wrote.

Robert: There is no doubt that “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” was the turning point in his career. My favorite song is “Lazy.”



"Just how complete? Try 1,200-plus songs from the grand old man of Tin Pan Alley. Sure, there's 'God Bless America,' but this late-in-life lyric may strike a chord too: 'Let's stroll down memory lane again/Where there's a brighter view/Till this crazy world is sane again/And the sun come shining through.'"
- Entertainment Weekly

"Irving Berlin is American music."
- Jerome Kern

  • The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin by Robert Kimball and Linda Emmet, eds.
  • October 09, 2001
  • Music - Songwriting; Music
  • Knopf
  • $65.00
  • 9780679419433

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