Feature: MONTHLY BIRTHDAY TRIBUTE: Let's salute Irving Berlin

A tip of the "Top Hat" to the man we should "Remember" – "Always"

By: May. 11, 2024
Feature: MONTHLY BIRTHDAY TRIBUTE: Let's salute Irving Berlin
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This Mother’s Day weekend coincides with the anniversary of Lena Lipkin Beilin giving birth to the most famous of her several children: the baby named Israel Beilin.  The family moved from Russia to America when the boy was five years old and he grew up to become one of the most celebrated songwriters ever, under his professional name of Irving Berlin. I’ve been struck lately, as I attend cabaret shows and go through recently released recordings, by how much his songs are still in the air.  In turn, these renditions make me recall so many past treatments of Berlin material that keep alive the contributions of this composer-lyricist who, himself, addressed the long lives of songs in a few songs he wrote: “You Keep Coming Back Like a Song,” “An Old-Fashioned Tune Is Always New,” and The Song Is Ended (But the Melody Lingers On)."  And he had quite the long life himself, having reached the age of 101!  On his 100th birthday, in 1988, a concert at Carnegie Hall marked the occasion, later broadcast on TV.  So, he is an obvious choice to be the person to get the nod for our ongoing feature celebrating the contributions of someone born in the current month.  

Majorly contributing to keeping The Irving Berlin catalog alive and well is the dedicated Chip Deffaa.  He’s written, produced, and directed two kinds of stage vehicles filled with the master’s songs: revues and bio-musicals that have Berlin as a character, recalling his career.  These have resulted in cast albums and his rewarding recording projects also include a long series of releases filled with the Irving oeuvre, which are especially notable for the abundance of charming lesser-known items from the early years.  The latest installment is titled Rare and Unrecorded Irving Berlin Songs and features New York-based cabaret performers Steve Ross, Anita Gillette, Ann Kittredge, Joan Jaffe, Eric Comstock, and Barbara Fasano. Not all the selections are rare or unrecorded, actually; among the 28 items is “White Christmas” sung by Betty Buckley.  But, with Mother’s Day on our minds, we can point to two related rarer relishables that are part of the package: “You’ve Got Your Mother’s Big Blue Eyes” sung by Stephen Bogardus and Mariah Hill with “If the Managers Only Thought the Same as Mother.”      

Berlin fare is often prominent at shows I end up at in my role as music reviewer here at BroadwayWorld and on recordings that come my way from publicists–and even a book. Stephen Cole’s entertaining historical fiction novel Mary & Ethel ... and Mikey Who?  has scenes taking place during performances of Berlin’s hit musical Annie Get Your Gun and a couple of that show’s numbers were in Klea Blackhurst’s zingy Ethel Merman salute at Chelsea Table + Stage (“I Got Lost in His Arms” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business”).  When I caught the High Society New Orleans Jazz Band at Birdland, the set list had three by Mr. B., including the comical “I’ll see You in C-U-B-A” which also is on a CD by CeCe Gable – and she does “Say It Isn’t So,” too. An Amber Weeks collection coming in June serves up “Suppertime.”   And there’s a new single release by Lana Del Ray, covering “Blue Skies.”  The March entry in the concert series Broadway by the Season at Merkin Hall sampled the scores of This Is the Army and Face the Music.   Ari Axelrod includes “God Bless America” in his act saluting Jewish songwriters returning to Birdland on Monday.  The married song-and-dance team of Nic and Desi have three Berlin standards introduced by Fred Astaire on their recording and another such memory, “Steppin’ Out with My Baby” was revived through song and dance at the Tony Bennett tribute at Jazz at Lincoln Center. 54 Below will host Carolyn Montgomery’s Rosemary Clooney tribute on May 22 and can hear her do right by “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me” featured in the Berlin score for the film White Christmas. And, getting back to Mother’s Day, in receiving a copy of a new book by Elizabeth Sullivan, mother of singers KT Sullivan, Stacy Sullivan, etc., etc., etc., I am reminded that Elizabeth’s wedding song was “Always” — which Irving Berlin wrote and gave to his wife as a wedding gift — and the iconic songwriter has been in the Sullivan universe with recordings and live shows.  

I want to end this column with two covers of Irving Berlin classics by the same vocalist.  Over the years, so many singers have caught my ear (and, sometimes, my heart), in person or on disc, etc.  There is one who has made a uniquely indelible impression on me.  She’s based in Wisconsin, but the rare appearances she made in my stomping grounds of New York City some years ago have powerfully stuck with me and I will always be glad to spend time with her numerous recordings that have standards, her originals, and more.  The latest gem is titled Hope Springs.  Her name is Janet Planet and she’s one of the most engaging vocalists on this planet.  Let me point you to two examples of two special Berlin performances she posted on Youtube – one from an early CD of a live gig and another performed for the camera when connecting with a crowd in person was halted during the pandemic.  The hope for better times and keeping perspective was captured poignantly with an appropriate song choice and an unexpected guest singing partner “on hand.”

Let’s take the time to celebrate Irving Berlin, now and “Always.”


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