November 16th was National Flapper Day over at Movies Silently and I had wanted to join in with a post of my own on the music of the era. However, I was unable to do so last week, owing to a variety of activities. Today, however, I am on the ball!
I just finished reading Irving Berlin: American Troubadour and the breadth of his career amazes me. He only played on the black keys of the piano, had very little schooling and no official musical training, but he was extraordinary. His first hit came during the 1910s and he was still writing songs in the early ’60s.
Jerome Kern once said that “Irving Berlin had no place in American music – he is American music.” Berlin could adapt to the different musical tastes of the times (until rock, that is – no one adapted to rock, as far as I can tell) and wrote rag, ballads, novelty songs, holiday songs, patriotic songs, nearly every kind of song there is.
He also believed in hits. Unlike Rodgers and Hammerstein, he was not as interested in having his songs fully integrated into the story, though he certainly intended them to make sense in the context of the story. But he liked his songs to be stand-alone hits outside of their original musical. This is why far fewer of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s songs are now jazz standards compared to Rodgers and Hart or Berlin or Cole Porter.
But because Irving Berlin liked hits, he liked the revue format rather than the musical story format. One of his best scores was composed for “As Thousands Cheer” in 1933, which was a revue starring Marilyn Miller, Clifton Webb, and Ethel Waters. He wrote “Heat Wave,” “Easter Parade,” and “Supper Time.” The conceit was that different newspaper headlines would morph into musical numbers. It was also the first show were an African-American performer (Waters) received top billing with other white performers.
But quite a few hit songs we now associate with Irving Berlin were written during the 1920s for different musical revues. He composed the music for a Ziegfeld Follies. He also co-owned a theater – The Music Box Theatre – where he put on several Music Box Revues.
What follows is a brief survey of several of Berlin’s enduring hits written in the 1920s.
“Blue Skies (1926)
“Blue Skies” was dedicated to Berlin’s first daughter, Mary Ellin, when she was born. The song was actually interpolated into a musical – “Betsy” – which was being scored by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. The actress, Belle Baker, was not pleased with their songs and asked Berlin for a song she could sing. A year later, Al Jolson would make history by singing it to his mother in The Jazz Singer. The song was recorded by a number of people during the late 1920s, along with the bandleader Ben Selvin and His Orchestra.
The Song Is Ended But the Melody Lingers On (1927)
I couldn’t find out anything at all about this song, except that it was published in 1927. This version is sung by Annette Hanshaw, an even more popular singer than Ruth Etting, it seems. Her years of greatest popularity spanned from the late twenties to early thirties. Her trademark was to say “That’s all” at the end of singing and she was the quintessential flapper/singer.
What’ll I Do (1924)
Introduced in Irving Berlin’s third Music Box Revue, this version is sung by Walter Pidgeon, who I had not realized could sing. Reportedly, when the song was heard in England, many people wanted to know what a “whattle” was.
Irving Berlin wrote for and literally gave this song to his wife, Ellin, when they were married. All royalties for the song belonged to her. Their romance had been a strained one. Her wealthy father disapproved and tried to detach Ellin from Irving Berlin, partly because he was Jewish. Eventually, Berlin and Ellin eloped, but were hounded by the press. It was only after many years later, after Berlin and Ellin unexpectedly lost their newborn son, that Ellin’s father reconciled with the family.
The performer is Nick Lucas, both singer and guitarist, who’s career spanned the 1910s to 1980s.