May 11: Irving Berlin

IrvingBerlinIrving Berlin, the composer described by George Gershwin as “the greatest songwriter that has ever lived” was born on this day in 1888.

Songwriter Jerome Kern wrote that “Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music.” Amazingly, Kern made this statement when Berlin was only 36. During his 55 year career as a composer, Berlin greatly shaped popular music. In short, a volume of the Great American Songbook could be dedicated just to his compositions. His first song was a ditty called “Marie from Sunny Italy”, written in 1907. In 1911, Berlin scored one of the first world-wide hits when his song “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” became a favorite all around the globe. It’s said that the four best selling records of 1911 were four different covers of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”.

In 1917, Berlin was drafted into the Army, with some newspapers running the headline “Army Takes Berlin”, in a special capacity as an official army songwriter. During World War I, Berlin composed a special all-soldier musical revue Yip Yip Yaphank designed to keep morale up amongst the troops. Interestingly, amongst the songs composed for the revue was a song called “God Bless America”. Berlin decided to not include “God Bless America” in the review and did not release it until 1938, as the world prepared for the Second World War.

After the War, Berlin continued writing popular songs. Many of these went on to become jazz standards including “What’ll I Do?”, “Blue Skies”, “Putting On The Ritz”, “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” and “Whte Christmas”. “Blue Skies” had the distinction of being amongst the first songs sung on film when it was included in the landmark 1927 talkie The Jazz Singer. He also found the time to write music for musicals on stage and screen. His most notable stage work included The Cocoanuts (which starred the Marx Brothers), As Thousands Cheered, Annie Get Your Gun and Call Me Madam: while his most notable films included Top Hat (starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers), Holiday Inn, Easter Parade and, of course, White Christmas.

In 1919, on the eve of Prohibition, Berlin composed a song called “A Syncopated Cocktail” in which he suggested that “Now that your drinking days are thru” you should enjoy a jazzy, ”fascinating, intoxicating” syncopated cocktail. It was only a matter of time before the song inspired a drink, and in 1927 Harry McElhone included a Syncopation Cocktail in his book Barflies and Cocktails. It’s a fruity cocktail, with just a hint of bitter spice.

Syncopation Cocktail

  • 1 ounce Brandy
  • 1/2 ounce Triple Sec
  • 1/2 ounce Calvados
  • 1/2 ounce lemon juice
  • 1 dash Bitters

Shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Tomorrow: Are you experienced?

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