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Irving Berlin

April 03, 1988

I enjoyed Lawrence Bergreen's article of the recluse Irving Berlin ("Behind the Berlin Wall," March 28).

Paul Grein claimed that Berlin "recorded one hit as an artist"--"Oh, How That German Could Love" in 1910. There were no record Top 10s in those days--hits were gauged by sheet music sales, and, anyway, this German dialect song was not a national hit.

Irving Berlin, in those days, was a publicity-hound. He constantly gave stories to the press and often, like most of those rambunctious Tin Pan Alleymen, exaggerated.

His collaborators in those early ragtime years include George Botsford ("Grizzly Bear"), Edgar Leslie ("Sadie Salone, Go Home") and George Meyer ("Dance and Grow Thin"). These men never seem to get a mention. Nor do the Berlin arrangers (who often had to supply the harmony) such as Cliff Hess.

For all his achievements Berlin was very much a journeyman song maker of his time--he admitted himself that he wrote far more flops than hits, and that he wrote for the "mob."

"A hit song is a good song; a good song is a hit song," he liked to say. But he knew that publicity was as important as the song itself--and he went out and milked the press like mad. As Harry Warren said about his colleague: "Only a bullet could stop him."

IAN WHITCOMB

Altadena

Whitcomb is the author of the book "Irving Berlin and Ragtime America."

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