Songwriter of the Day: Irving Berlin

Irving Berlin

I have been admiring the songwriting of Irving Berlin of late. I recently purchased two great albums which showcase his work; Ella Fitzgerald’s Irving Berlin Songbook, and a cheapo (but flawless) Fred Astaire compilation called “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”. The latter isn’t entirely devoted to Berlin, but both are packed with classic songs performed impeccably in the singers’ respective styles. And the Fred CD actually features the recorded sound of tap dancing, which will never cease to bring joy to my tiny jaded heart.

Irving Berlin was one of the few so-called Great American Songbook composers who wrote both the music and lyrics to his songs. He was astoundingly prolific, so naturally there are plenty of songs in his oeuvre which don’t appeal to me – “There’s No Business Like Show Business” is particularly grating, for example. But he wrote more than his fair share of classics, many of the best ones introduced by Fred Astaire on stage and screen. Take “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” for example.

Fred Astaire in Top Hat (1935)

The chorus melody (“I’m… puttin’ on my top hat…”) is bordering on inane, but it gives way to this insanely complicated bridge packed with internal rhymes, awkward accidental notes and dizzying syncopation. “I’m going out my dear to breathe and atmosphere that simply reeks with class.” Somehow it manages to sound elegant and memorable despite the difficulty in actually singing it. What I wouldn’t give to be able to pull stuff like that out of my head. And paired with such a charming and inventive dance routine… don’t get me started! Absolute magic.

The entire Ella Fitzgerald album can be heard on last.fm, although the tracklist rather awkwardly merges the songs from both discs. Highlights include laid-back, swinging interpretations of Astaire gems “Cheek to Cheek”, “Isn’t This a Lovely Day” and “No Strings (I’m Fancy Free)” – which includes a brief scat interlude. And then there’s the heartbreaking “Supper Time”, about a wife’s reaction to the news of her husband’s lynching. Ella doesn’t get much room to break out into her vibrant improvisations on the album, but her interpretations go straight to the heart of the songs.

Whether it’s Fred or Ella, you can hear great performers at their best, singing the work of a great composer at his best. Everybody wins, don’t they?

One Response to “Songwriter of the Day: Irving Berlin”

  1. I’ve heard a bit of the Ella Fitzgerald album. Absolutely timeless, that one. :) Blue Skies is exquisite.

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