MUSIC CLIP - OSCAR PETERSON, “MOONGLOW”
Welcome to Afterglow, I’m your host, Mark Chilla.
In the 1930s, when the Great Depression hit, there was a mass exodus of songwriters who moved from Broadway out to Hollywood, adding their songs to the new art form, the film musical. And one of the first to make a name for himself on the Silver Screen was songwriter Irving Berlin. Berlin’s film songs make up a large portion of what we think of as the Great American Songbook, including songs like “Cheek To Cheek,” “Puttin’ On The Ritz” and “Let’s Face The Music And Dance.” This hour, we’ll explore the songwriter’s work in cinema, as performed by jazz and pop singers like Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald and more
It’s Irving Berlin at the Movies, coming up next on Afterglow
MUSIC - TONY BENNETT, “YOU'RE EASY TO DANCE WITH"/"CHANGE PARTNERS"/"CHEEK TO CHEEK"
A medley of three Irving Berlin film songs. That was “You’re Easy To Dance With” from the 1942 film Holiday Inn, “Change Partners” from 1938’s Carefree, and “Cheek To Cheek” from 1935’s Top Hat. That comes from Tony Bennett’s 1993 Fred Astaire tribute album Steppin’ Out.
MUSIC CLIP - CHARLIE SHAVERS, “ALEXANDER'S RAGTIME BAND”
Mark Chilla here on Afterglow. On this show, we’re exploring the later career of American songwriter Irving Berlin, and the songs he wrote for Hollywood films.
There is hardly a composer more central to “American popular song” in the first half of the 20th century than Irving Berlin. Born in Imperial Russia in 1888, he emigrated to America just before the turn of the 20th century, growing up in abject poverty in New York City. He learned the gift of melody from his father, a Jewish cantor, although the young Irving’s talent for music was much more natural than traditionally learned.
He left school at age 13, and earned money singing in saloons, picking up songs from people on the street and teaching himself how to play some basic piano and improvising some original melodies. He graduated from a song plugger for a publishing company to a full-fledged songwriter by the time he was 20, earning his first international hit song, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” at age 23. Over the next several years, Berlin wrote songs for the Broadway stage and the hit parade, becoming one of the most popular songwriters in America.
1927 marked a turning point, not just for Irving Berlin, but for all of American Culture. With Al Jolson’s 1927 film The Jazz Singer, a new form of media was created: the talkie, a film that synced sights and sounds. The silent era was over and the sound era had begun. The film itself does not age well—minstrelsy was still a key component of American entertainment in the 1920s, and so Jolson performs in blackface for much of the film. But its story of an immigrant son of a Jewish cantor making it big in show business was similar to Irving Berlin’s own story. And one of his songs, “Blue Skies,” was used in the film.
“Blue Skies” was written for the stage, not the screen, but it’s inclusion in the first feature-length film to incorporate synchronized songs, it’s worthy of inclusion here.
Here’s a recording of that song from three decades later. This is Johnny Hartman in 1957 with the Irving Berlin song “Blues Skies,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - JOHNNY HARTMAN, “BLUE SKIES”
Johnny Hartman in 1957 from his album All of Me, with the Irving Berlin song “Blues Skies,” featured in the 1927 film The Jazz Singer.
Most notable film songwriters from this time—including Richard Rodgers and Jerome Kern—waited until the 1930s to try their luck in Hollywood. It wasn’t until the Great Depression, when their fortunes were drying up on Broadway, that a move out west seemed lucrative. But Irving Berlin, after the success of The Jazz Singer, started writing songs exclusively for films right away, all while continuing to write other songs for the stage. Berlin wrote new songs for the 1928 film The Awakening and the 1929 film The Cocoanuts, as well as the title songs to the 1930 films Reaching For The Moon and Puttin’ On The Ritz.
Irving Berlin’s song contributions are sometimes the only reason these films are remembered today. Only highly-edited versions of Reaching For The Moon and Puttin’ On The Ritz survive today, and a print of The Awakening is completely lost.
Let’s hear a few of those songs now.
First up, here is Ray Charles with a song named after the main character of the film The Awakening. This is Irving Berlin’s “Marie,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - RAY CHARLES, “MARIE”
MUSIC - FRANK SINATRA, “REACHING FOR THE MOON”
MUSIC - FRED ASTAIRE, “PUTTIN’ ON THE RITZ”
Three early film songs by Irving Berlin. First in that set was Ray Charles in 1961 with the song “Marie” from the 1928 film The Awakening. Next up was Frank Sinatra in 1966 with “Reaching For The Moon” from the 1930 film of the same name. And just now, Fred Astaire in 1952 with the title song from the 1930 film Puttin’ On The Ritz.
Contrary to what you might be thinking right now, Fred Astaire did not introduce that last song “Puttin’ On The Ritz.” It was actor Harry Richman who first sang it in the 1930 film. Astaire was a singing star at the time, and he did record a version of it that year. But the film version you may be thinking of was from 1946, when Fred Astaire sang “Puttin’ On The Ritz” when it was revived for the film musical Blue Skies. Then again, you may also be thinking about Mel Brooks and Peter Boyle singing that song in the 1974 film Young Frankenstein.
Starting in 1930, Irving Berlin had some writer’s block. He had already spent two decades in the business, and was afraid his best years were behind him. Luckily, he broke out of his slump a few years later, when he wrote songs like “Heat Wave” and “Easter Parade” for the 1933 Broadway musical As Thousands Cheer.
It wasn’t until 1935, however, that Berlin returned to film. That was for the 1935 film Top Hat starring, you guessed it, Fred Astaire. By this point, Astaire and his musical partner Ginger Rogers had already had a string of film hits. But now with Irving Berlin’s songs, Top Hat became their most acclaimed and successful musical. Astaire’s star power also helped elevate these songs to immortal status.
Let’s hear a few of them now. First up, here is Peggy Lee in 1958 with the Irving Berlin song “Cheek To Cheek,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - PEGGY LEE, “CHEEK TO CHEEK”
MUSIC - ELLA FITZGERALD, “ISN’T THIS A LOVELY DAY”
MUSIC - LOUIS ARMSTRONG, “TOP HAT, WHITE TIE AND TAILS”
Three songs originally written by Irving Berlin for the 1935 film Top Hat, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Just now, we heard Louis Armstrong in 1958 from his album Under The Stars with “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails.” Before that Ella Fitzgerald, also in 1958 from her Irving Berlin songbook album with “Isn’t This A Lovely Day.” And before that, Peggy Lee, again in 1958 from her album Jump For Joy with “Cheek To Cheek.”
MUSIC CLIP - ANDRE PREVIN, “PUTTIN' ON THE RITZ”
We’ll have more Irving Berlin film songs in just a bit. Stay with us.
I’m Mark Chilla, and you’re listening to Afterglow
MUSIC CLIP - CHARLIE BARNET, “ISN'T THIS A LOVELY DAY”
MUSIC CLIP - STEPHANE GRAPPELLI, “CHEEK TO CHEEK”
Welcome back to Afterglow, I’m Mark Chilla. We’ve been exploring the film songs of Irving Berlin this hour.
The wildly successful 1935 film Top Hat proved to be a winning formula: take some Irving Berlin songs, combine them with musical numbers performed by the electrifying on-screen duo of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and you got yourself a hit film. The team at RKO pictures tried the formula again for the nautical-themed film musical Follow The Fleet, which produced more memorable numbers.
Let’s hear several of them now. First up, here is Mel Tormé and the Marty Paich Dek-Tette from his Fred Astaire tribute album in 1956 with “Let’s Face The Music And Dance,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - MEL TORME, “LET’S FACE THE MUSIC AND DANCE”
MUSIC - CARMEN MCRAE, “I’M PUTTING ALL MY EGGS IN ONE BASKET”
MUSIC - ELLA FITZGERALD, “LET YOURSELF GO”
Three songs from the 1936 Irving Berlin film musical Follow The Fleet. Just now, we heard Ella Fitzgerald, again from her Irving Berlin songbook album with “Let Yourself Go.” Before that, Carmen McRae in 1956 with “I’m Putting All My Eggs In One Basket.” And before that, Mel Torme that same year with “Let’s Face The Music and Dance.”
In the late 1930s, Irving Berlin continued his string of hits writing for film. The demand for film musicals with songs by Berlin even began to outpace his own songwriting abilities. By 1938, film companies like 20th Century Fox began to produce films that would borrow heavily from Berlin’s back catalog of songs, with the songwriter only writing a few new tunes for the occasion. This was the case for the 1938 film Alexander’s Ragtime Band, 1942’s Holiday Inn, or 1946’s Blue Skies.
Let’s hear a few of the new songs Berlin wrote for these films. First up is a song from the 1937 film On The Avenue. This is Billie Holiday that same year with “This Year’s Kisses,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - BILLIE HOLIDAY, “THIS YEAR’S KISSES”
MUSIC - SARAH VAUGHAN AND BILLY ECKSTINE, “NOW IT CAN BE TOLD”
MUSIC - HELEN CARR, “BE CAREFUL, IT’S MY HEART”
Three film songs by Irving Berlin.
Just now, that was Helen Carr in 1956 with “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” from the 1942 film Holiday Inn. Before that, Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine in 1957 with "Now It Can Be Told,” from the 1938 film Alexander’s Ragtime Band. And starting that set, Billie Holiday in 1937 with “This Year’s Kisses” from the film On The Avenue.
In 1948, Irving Berlin had turned 60 years old, and had already spent about four decades in the music business. These later years were still fairly successful for him. He had just written a hit Broadway show, Annie Get Your Gun, and his songs were still being featured in some of the biggest films of the day, like Easter Parade starring Judy Garland and Fred Astaire and White Christmas starring Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney. In these later films, most of the songs were drawn from the now-established Irving Berlin songbook, but on occasion, he would write a new song that would continue to stick around decades later.
To close off this hour, let’s hear one of Irving Berlin’s last big hit songs. This was originally sung by Fred Astaire in the 1948 film Easter Parade, and revived 45 years later when it was sung by this next singer.
This is Tony Bennett from his 1993 Fred Astaire tribute album with Irving Berlin’s “Stepping Out With My Baby,” on Afterglow
MUSIC - TONY BENNETT, “STEPPIN’ OUT WITH MY BABY”
Tony Bennett from his 1993 album Steppin’ Out with the Irving Berlin song “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” originally from the 1948 film Easter Parade.
Thanks for tuning in to this Irving Berlin film song edition of Afterglow.
MUSIC CLIP - FRED ASTAIRE & OSCAR PETERSON, “YOU'RE EASY TO DANCE WITH”
Afterglow is part of the educational mission of Indiana University and produced by WFIU Public Radio in beautiful Bloomington, Indiana. The executive producer is John Bailey.
Playlists for this and other Afterglow programs are available on our website. That’s at indianapublicmedia.org/afterglow.
I’m Mark Chilla, and join me next week for our mix of Vocal Jazz and popular song from the Great American Songbook, here on Afterglow.