My Life With Irving BY Ian Whitcomb


Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.

You can find Ian's main website at



He’s always been beside me, it seems, to comfort and guide me. I was singing his songs in my aunt’s children’s concert on stage in an English village hall at the age of 10, getting chubby and stuttering at crisis time, but happy to be enveloped in his faraway dreamland of Alexander and that amazing ragtime band.

Catchy snatches are irresistible to children and “Alexander” repeats and repeats so that gratification is not only satisfied but also sated. We shouted out those fairground barker words so excitedly and so un-Englishy that we had to be calmed down with hot milk and chocolate biscuits before bedtime. Who could resist the clarion call?: “Come on and here! Come on and hear!” set to a nagging rag of melody.

Get with the style or you’ll be left behind, said Irving, and a little later Bill Haley was ordering us similarly to “Rock Around The Clock”. We did and poor old Irving was left bewildered and angry. These barbarous body twitchers and assassins of melody were bad enough but Elvis mangling “White Christmas” was sacrilege. Berlin’s office ordered radio stations to cease and desist.  But there was no stopping the rock & roll steamroller — driven by the singer it eventually squashed the song and toppled Tin Pan Alley.

However much I shook with Haley and Elvis I never forgot Irving’s accessible songs. He had a way with the everyday catch phrase, served back to us in a sugar pie: “I’m putting all my eggs in one basket”, “”Let’s face the music and dance”. My family sang them in shower and car ride, but drew the line at “How Deep Is The Ocean?”. My grandfather wrote up to “The Times” pointing out precisely how deep the ocean is and how high the sky. “Perhaps this will end the crooners’ constant bleating!”.

In my student days at Trinity College Dublin, despite my fellow students’ fixation with jazz and Beatles and all that was currently cool, I remained loyal to Irving: a local cinema revived “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, a late 1930s tribute, and I sat alone one afternoon thrilling to Wally Vernon’s song and dance routine in “This Is The Life”, a 1914 vaudeville socker about a country boob who comes to town and goes crazy over cocktail cherries, preferring them to “picking berries”. The social commentary  (simple rustic life ruined by migration into urban sophistication and concomitant sin), was lost on me: what socked me was the rhythmic drive -- a jubilant strut-march far from any war -- and the bouncy, jaunty phrase, “This is the life!”, sitting on a most attractive chord and drummed out twice in succession. How refreshing it was to get a song in two-beat, rather than the boring chug of four-four that the jazzers were addicted to!

However, I wasn’t averse to the pleasures that rock & roll could win a lusty kid:  in 1965, still studying for my history finals, I made a record that used a current catch phrase, “You Turn Me On” and scored a top ten hit in America. Like Irving when he was a sharp-eared kid in Tin Pan Alley, I’d learned to pick up from the street what was hot. Irving’s ragtime announcements like
“Everybody’s Doing It Now” were the forerunners of “Do The Freddie” or “Let’s Twist Again”. He’d have been a great rocker, giving us well-made songs to keep us steady, but instead he was now, they said, a rich old blighter, snarling in a New York castle.

I suppose I could have gone on as a rock star, screaming and hollering and complaining about life as a kid, could have made more money and killed myself and made even more money. But I didn’t. I got hooked on my ukulele, even as I rode on rock tour busses, thus starting a long march backwards into Tin Pan Alley sheet music treasures. Naturally, I met up with Irving again, discovering he’d covered every base in song genres, and generally done it more wittily and fresher than most other Alleymen.

I started featuring “Sadie Salome, Go Home!” in my Hollywood club act. Now this is a 1909 ethnic comedy song that Irving wrote with Edgar Leslie and it presents a lugubrious, even lubricious, picture of a nice Jewish girl doing a Salome strip tease on stage and being interrupted by sweetheart Mose who shouts: “Where is your clothes!”.

 I thought this was hilarious and harmless, until one night my agent pulled me aside and asked, “Are you one of us?”. “Not that I’m aware of”, I replied. “Then don’t ever sing that again if you want to progress in our business!”. Being an Englishman of sheltered background I’d been unaware of the minefield that lay in ethnic stereotypes.

So I laid off Irving’s library of dialect numbers -- there were lots, ranging from German and Italian to a mess of blackface dixie songs — and took up a pastoral idyll, “Settle Down In A One Horse Town”, published in 1914, the same year as “This Is The Life” but taking an opposite viewpoint: the joys of a simple life of overalls and gingham gowns far from the clangor of cabarets. The verse is in a melancholy minor, almost a wail, but lo! -- as the chorus opens we are thrown into a big sky major mode. It struck me that perhaps the darkness in the verse reflected Irving’s grim Russian ghetto background and that the bright chorus melody was like entering a golden gate to super-radiant America. Gershwin’s “Swanee” displays this same minor-to-major effect, too.

But then again, perhaps I was over-analyzing: Berlin cannot be categorized because he wrote in every category, be it waltz, rag, ethnic novelty, topical. He was everywhere and everything to Everyman. His commercial intent was, in the title to one of his early songs, to “Follow The Crowd”. The only time he let his real life into his work, he admitted, was in “When I Lost You”, a 1912 hymn to his recently deceased wife. A mournful waltz thick with juicy harmonies supporting a lilting melody, this was his first ballad and it was served up to the public like an aching heart on a platter.  And it became his first smash hit ballad. Art meeting the market in a most satisfying way.


By the late 1960s, I was forging a vaudeville-ragtime act, with my pianist partner Professor Dick Zimmerman, in club, concert hall, and high school gymnasium. My rock promoters had given me up for dead; utterly hooked, I was marching to Alexander’s different drum, regardless of financial considerations.

By this time, too, I had started researching the origins of the pop music business, and soon I had a book contract with Penguin, London. My mission was to write a story that showed the natural progress from Tin Pan Alley to psychedelic chaos and the end of the well-made song. Rockers and Mouldy Figges alike figured I’d set myself an impossible task. I even heard, via his office, that Mr. Berlin himself was puzzled that I should disinter obsolescent stuff like “Sadie Salome”. Doesn’t this fellow know I have a lot of much newer and much better numbers? Yes, but I wasn’t about to do “Cheek to Cheek” or any of those velvet- carpeted climbers of the oh-so-sophisticated 1930s. Astaire had defined them to perfection; a clammy bunch of camp cabaret performers were presently smothering them. Besides, these songs, however clever and chromatic, were trapped in a love box. “White Christmas” was a pent-up thing, the notes squashed together in a fuggy closet. In contrast, “When The Midnight Choo Choo Leaves For Alabam” fairly snorts away, spreading happy, leaping melodic intervals, like wide open spaces, as it heads for a mythic Dixie. You see, I preferred the smoky, beery air of dance halls, saloons, spit and sawdust, and getting showered with silver if your song went over. I had no time for the limp, effete, or affected. No time for the cigarette holder. The Master needed me.

Any chance of talking to the great man? Very little, said my friends in the know. Like Dracula he only came to life at nighttime and the chosen few would receive calls at unearthly hours. Max Morath, the fine ragtime reviver, managed to get him to discuss ragtime. “Ragtime?”, he exploded. “I never knew what it was!” Instead, he wrote about it. Jack Elliot, one of his arrangers, let me hear tantalizing snippets of phone calls, recorded surreptitiously. A high-pitched voice, trembling with querulousness: “Yes, I own the Music Box theatre. And no, I’m not going to revive one of my revues there. Why? Because — and listen carefully — I can’t afford to have a flop! Besides, show business died years ago, years ago….”

He felt he was a forgotten man, lost in an echo chamber of rock raucousness. Yet here was I, eager to get near to him and tell him that I was living spiritually in his Alley, working my material from table to table as he had once done at the Pelham Café in Chinatown. Singing for my supper one night at an L.A bistro I announced “Mandy”, a blackface minstrel Berlin hit. An elderly man collared me: he was the son of Mike Salter, the tough guy owner of The Pelham Café in the early 1900s. He admitted his father had been a gangster and pimp, running the café with its backroom brothel as a front for all manner of criminal activities, including drugs. That’s probably how Izzy Baline (Berlin) got hooked on cocaine. Many’s the night bullets flew and bodies fell as Izzy sang a blue parody to a current sob song. “Dad was a tireless worker for local politicians — he threw all their rivals’ votes into the Hudson”, he told me as a tidbit, before tossing me a tip and leaving. I’d wanted to know if he was in touch with Berlin.

Hoping to send a message by modern mass media, I chose an odd song for an appearance on “The Tonight Show”: “Dance And Grow Thin”, a 1917 revue novelty sporting the splendid line, “Go right ahead and eat a great big luncheon/ I guarantee that you will soon have one chin”. Bandleader Doc Severinsen came to my rescue, admonishing his band for hokeying up the music: “Show some respect!”. However, in the ensuing interview, host John Davidson spoiled this by telling me I wasn’t playing with a full deck.  Now the odd thing about this number is that only the words are by Berlin; the tune is by George Meyer, a fellow Alleyman. Why was Berlin still collaborating at this later stage? I needed to have a word to him.

So I flew to New York. In Jack Dempsey’s bar on Broadway, I was introduced to veteran songwriter Edgar Leslie while he was sipping his regular cup of bouillon. Edgar had co-written “Sadie Salome, Go Home!” and knew the song racket as well as Berlin. An acerbic old sourpuss, his chief expression was “What the hell!” and when I asked him whether Shakespeare had ever influenced him he snapped, “The guy doesn’t bother me!”.

 But he did throw me a pearl. What music had caught the fancy of him and Irving at the time of their collaboration in 1909? Why, the British Music Hall writers with their witty lyrics. Edgar cited two comic songs from a year or so before that had crossed the ocean and cleaned up in vaudeville: “Poor John!” and “Waiting At The Church”. The latter has the immortal line: “Can’t get away to marry you today — my wife won’t let me”. So this was Irving’s inspiration!

I also visited the great black pianist/composer Eubie Blake who remembered the curly-haired and antsy Berlin dropping in to watch Blake play in New York clubs, how the kid had sat quietly in his yellow shoes and derby hat, listening intently -- then suddenly scribbling on a menu, a napkin, anything handy, and rushing off without so much as a by your leave.

Plucking up courage I dropped in on Irving Berlin Music, still there after all these years, and ruled by the salty-sweet matron Hilda. These days she had little over which to rule since there wasn’t a soul in the office when I arrived. A pleasant mustiness prevailed, an atmosphere of the 1950s detailed by the long low radiogram and magazines with Ike on the cover. The walls were decorated with pictures of sad, weeping clowns on a velvet background, artworks by the boss. I commandeered a dusty spinet piano and demonstrated an obscure Berlin song, “When The Folks High Up Do The Mean Low Down There Ain’t No Low Down Lower Than That”, a clever comment about how black culture when taken up by rich whites can appear decadent.

 “He never wrote it”, said Hilda. But he did, I said. It’s from the movie, “Reaching For The Moon”. “He never wrote it and don’t ever mention that movie round here”. It was tea-time — perhaps he might call in for news. “You never know in this world”. If he does call, can I speak to him? “ When you speak to me you’re speaking to him”. He never called.

I returned to London to ponder. My hero wasn’t going to talk to me, wasn’t going to co-operate — I’d heard horror stories about well-meaning writers and researchers getting rebuffed, even insulted, by the songwriter when they’d tried to get permission to quote from his songs. Vitriolic calls at the witching hour. Even Steven Spielberg was denied use of “Always” for a movie, despite offers that reached into the millions. “I have plans for that song”, said the misanthropic nonagenarian.

Well, he couldn’t stop me writing about the early years — to me the key ones, the crucible of his talent, the hurly-burly years of collaboration, years when he wrote the racy, raggy, funny, funky songs that pierced right through my heart and made my loins gurgle — he couldn’t stop me because these songs were free of copyright — they were in the public domain.

So I embarked on, “Irving Berlin & Ragtime America” a book that was published in 1987. I placed him in his natural habitat of Tin Pan Alley clang and bustle, borrowing and hustle, surrounded by his rivals and friends. And as I saw him in this context and studied his songs I realized where his genius lay — in taking the familiar and fashioning it into work that has his quirky yet attractive stamp. I also realized that he was astute enough to employ musical secretaries who were able to realize his muse by trapping on paper the sayings and rhythms of the street as well as the hothouse fantasies of Dixie, the farm and Mother, dreamed up hourly in the fevered brain of the whiz kid from Russia.

My hero, I concluded, must have had a court of unsung heroes, the arrangers, in that hive of industry called Waterson, Berlin & Snyder, Music Publishers. None of the trio could read or write music. Waterson was an ex-diamond merchant and rack jobber. So what? Songs are picked from out of the air like butterflies and then pinned to paper for convenience. Pit bands and parlor pianists have to play them, you see.

So what? So this: Irving and so many of his fellow writers were musical illiterates blessed with natural inner ears. They used special pianos that, at the shift of a lever or bar, could transpose you into any key you liked. Most ear writers liked the white notes, but Irving stuck to the black ones. This let him tramp up and down in the folksy field of the pentatonic (see “Always”). Where the ear-boys fell down was in the house of harmony. And this is where the unsung heroes come in. Utilizing not only the tried and true harmonies of classical music but also the new slinky chord extensions of impressionists like Debussy (with ninths and thirteenths and slippery seductive chromatic runs) the house arrangers dressed up the ear-boys tunes in coats of many colors.

Waterson, Berlin & Snyder employed one of the finest of all the arrangers, Cliff Hess. So crucial was Hess to the Berlin song machine that the he became his shadow, living in the songwriters apartment, taking down his melodies as the master hummed and swayed around the fuggy room, and adding chords (“You got that one wrong, Cliff—play me another!”), hitting the sack together at five in the morning, reaching the office in the afternoon in a shared taxi.

If you examine the sheet music — and I did over and over — you will see the beauty of Hess’s workmanship, like a Belgian lace maker. Look at the three opening notes of “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody”: three chromatics set in a bed of lush descending chords. I bet that’s Hess’s work, with the boss’ approval of course. Or “Crinoline Days” with a verse that is like a chorale --- subtle and sinuous harmonies that are not like the clumped building blocks of later guitar-based rock but are like a myriad of fishes weaving in a cool and pleasant stream.

I closed my book on the eve of the Jazz Age, in 1919, with one war ended and others beginning or looming — the songwriters’ battle with jazz, radio, records, talkies. Threats to the reign of the song itself. But Berlin now had his very own publishing company and was free to do as he liked, still following the crowd to sell them back their dreams and desires, always with an ear to the street, ready for changes in taste, but now king of his castle and already becoming a little remote. In my mind’s eye I saw him one day in New York as the snow fell without imagination, ending in a dull phutt on the pavements below………..

He was riding around New York for the hell of it. Christmas was near and so snow was welcome, at least from the viewpoint of the warm interior of the long sedan. Up front, separated by a glass partition, sat the chauffeur and the bodyguard. Between them squatted a German shepherd dog, ears pricking, hyperventilating from anticipated violence. The trio was at all times prepared for the moment when matter meets anti-matter. Anarchy was in the air, according to the newspapers. There had been another rumor of a kidnap operation on the boss.

Wrapped in his polar bear overcoat, sunk into the cushions, happy in the enveloping smell of seasoned leather, Irving Berlin was pure thought. He was thinking about ‘Oh! How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning’ and, in particular, about the guy who wakes the bugler up. What about the guy who wakes the guy who wakes the bugler up? And tracing the mystery to its source, what about the guy who makes the stars which make the galaxies which make the universe? What about the Man Upstairs? Too much pure thought chasing round and round and getting nowhere. Maybe a ghetto legacy. Look up the answers in the encyclopedia at home. Home? Where was that?

Meantime, better to look out at the passing show — the general public — his people, the mob — slogging through the snow. Mostly office people rushing to lunch, to buy gifts, to perhaps purchase a song. At a stop sign there was an unpleasant occurrence. A threatening person, probably displaced, in a threadbare overcoat and a slouch cap pulled low, rapped hard on the hood of the sedan. As he rapped he glared, squashing a beefsteak face against he front window. The angry, perplexed face reminded him of a distraught woman who had recently managed to burst into his office, jabbering in Yiddish. He shuddered and pulled his coat tighter. Yiddish — a frigid blast from a time best forgotten. He needed the warmth of the land of Alexander and endless foxtrotting.

The chauffeur pulled away fast, ignoring the red light and leaving the slouch cap person in a swirl of snow. What had the person wanted? Was it Irving or the idea of Irving? It couldn’t be Izzy Baline he’d wanted. And would such a person leave the sunshine to the flowers and the songbirds to the blind?

Was Irving Berlin music any more than jingle-jangle, a pleasant escape from the thudding here and now? Was it all just a joke and was somebody up there laughing? Or was Irving Berlin music — and all music — a telephone line to heaven? And is the public ready for another telephone song?
      The person in the slouch cap was long gone, rubbed out by winter and the city. The sedan took a bit longer to vanish but it vanished all the same. And then everything was white and still and only the songs remained.



Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.

You can find Ian's main website at