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What's Berlin's Best?

March 27, 1988|PAUL GREIN PAUL GREIN

Calendar asked a cross-section of top singers and songwriters to pick their favorite Irving Berlin song and explain the longevity of his work.

Deceptively simple .

That phrase pops up again and again in conversations with top singers and songwriters on the subject of Irving Berlin's music.

"The music isn't as simple as you think it is," said composer Marvin Hamlisch. "It deceives you. You think it's maybe not as sophisticated as Cole Porter, certainly not as jazzy as Harold Arlen, maybe not as worldly as Richard Rodgers.

"But at the root of all his melodies, there's a real beauty that you may not recognize the first time through. If you take 'There's No Business Like Show Business,' and do it slowly, you find that you have a very poignant melody. It's a melody that gets to your heart, and that's the hardest thing to write."

Burt Bacharach said he learned that the hard way.

"When I first started to write songs, (Berlin's songs) looked to me like very simple, very easy songs to write," he said. "I thought I could do a couple of those a day, but I went a year without getting a song published, so it wasn't so easy."

Michael Feinstein, a cabaret-style singer who frequently spoke with Berlin when Feinstein was working for the late lyricist Ira Gershwin, cited the example of Berlin's 1925 ballad, "Always."

"On a superficial level--just on a flip examination--you say, 'that's a nice song,' but when you really get into it, you see how cleverly and carefully constructed it is. I remember hearing that it took him a whole year to come up with the final line--'not for just an hour/not for just a day/not for just a year/but always.' That last line is the perfect finish for that song."

Barry Manilow made a similar discovery when he studied Berlin's "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody."

"I always considered that a pretty simple song," he said. "But we took it apart recently, and it was amazing. There's a point where the melody changes course and you don't expect it to. And I've found that there's a little unexpected turn in each of his songs where you can't predict where it's going to go. And yet when it gets there, it seems like it was the most obvious place to go."

Manilow added: "Berlin always got to the truth. As a songwriter, I would probably be knocking my head against a wall trying to figure out the best way to say, 'I'll be loving you forever.' And so what he did was just say, 'I'll be loving you always.' "

Indeed, that directness and simplicity is the most distinguishing characteristic of Berlin's music.

Steve Lawrence, who starred with his wife, Eydie Gorme, in an Emmy-winning TV special built around Berlin's music, said: "It's very straight to the point, straight to the heart, straight to the mind, straight to the ear."

Bob Hope, who has known Berlin for 50 years, observed that whereas Cole Porter's songs were targeted at a sophisticated, elite audience, Berlin's songs appeal to the average person. "They're songs that everybody can sing and understand," he said.

Henry Mancini, who assembles a group of top singers and songwriters each year to videotape a birthday greeting to Berlin, also contrasted the two composers. "Porter led with his mind and his intellect," he said, "where Berlin leads more with his heart and soul."

Rosemary Clooney, who got to know Berlin in the '50s when she co-starred in the film version of "White Christmas," added: "He really had a handle on all the things that people find important in their lives. He crosses over all socioeconomic barriers and just gets to the feelings that all people share."

Tony Bennett, who recently recorded an LP of Berlin songs called "Bennett/Berlin," noted that Berlin was sometimes ridiculed by musical "experts" because he couldn't read or write music.

"A lot of snobbish, very competent, mathematical musicians said, 'This is a joke: The man can't read music.' And yet he wrote more hit songs than anybody. He knew what the common man was about--what his dreams were and how he felt about life. He was almost like the Norman Rockwell of songwriters."

Manilow suggested that Berlin's lack of formal musical training actually worked in his favor.

"Because he never learned to read music and couldn't really play piano very well, he was stuck with his ear, which is the best way," Manilow said.

Toni Tennille agreed. "When he sat down to write something, he didn't say, 'Now is this musically correct? Is it OK for this chord to follow this chord? Am I doing the right thing according to music theory?' He just sat down and wrote without worrying if it was correct or not. And consequently it was more human. Berlin just wrote what came from his heart."

Irving Berlin fans form something of a Who's Who of American popular music.

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