In 1927, Irving Berlin wrote Puttin’ on the Ritz. In the 90 years since then, this song about style has never fallen out of fashion.
In 2009, I first posted about the fact that Irving Berlin’s Puttin’ on the Ritz has had a dazzling run, not just in American popular culture, but in world popular culture. That is, unlike many older songs that one can find hidden in corners on YouTube, Puttin’ on the Ritz has enjoyed a life extending far beyond amateur musicals and eclectic collectors of old songs. It lives on at the heart of popular culture.
Irving Berlin came to America with his parents and his seven brothers and sisters in 1893, when he was only five. The family settled in New York’s Lower East Side, which at that time was the most densely populated spot in the world.
Life was terribly hard for the family in the New World. Berlin’s father, a cantor (a career that hints at Berlin’s musicality), ended up working for meager pay as a kosher butcher. By the time he was 8, Berlin was on the streets helping out his family by hawking newspapers, although he still attended school sporadically.
When Berlin was 13, his father died. Berlin quit school and, in addition to continuing to sell papers for pennies, became a singing waiter wherever he could find work. Berlin was bathed in the rhythm and vernacular of America’s most dynamic community. Given his innate musical gifts, it should come as no surprise that, within a few years, he had moved on to songwriting.
Berlin managed to eke out a living writing a variety of rather primitive “ethnic” or “dialect” songs. These popular songs relied on stereotypical rhythms and accents from America’s immigrant and black communities. There were Yiddish songs, Black songs, Russian songs, German songs, and Irish songs, to name just a few. All would be offensive today but, in the first decade of the 20th century, they were an important way to integrate various ethnic groups into the vast American melting pot.
In 1911, Berlin had his first major hit, with a Black ethnic song: Alexander’s Ragtime Band. Berlin, with his unique ability to target what Americans wanted to hear, essentially took a march and ragged it up. Here’s the Billy Murray recording that made Irving Berlin a songwriting star. By the way, as you listen, you can easily hear the self-consciously Black dialect Murray affects:
By the 1930s, Alice Faye, with help from Don Ameche and Tyrone Power had erased entirely the song’s ethnic sensibilities. It was now an all-American song, with the lyrics existing as the only remaining hint of its faux black origins:
But I’m getting sidetracked. This is a post about Puttin’ on the Ritz. [Read more…]