Born on this day 128 years ago was one of the finest songwriters Tin Pan Alley has ever known, Irving Berlin.
Berlin was born Israel Isidore Baline in the Russian Empire on May 11, 1888, and emigrated to the United States when he was a young boy. As did many immigrants in that day and age, he Americanized his name, changing it to Irving Berlin. Like so many greats, Berlin began working as a song plugger in New York City as a young man, and before long published his first song, “Marie From Sunny Italy”. Having never taught himself to play piano in more than one key, Berling purchased a special piano that allowed him to transpose the key at the flip of a lever. In 1911 came Berlin’s first big hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”. When the Great War came around, Berlin was drafted, and, always full of patriotic vigor, was tasked with writing songs for the war effort. In that period, he gave us such hits as “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning!” from the all-soldier musical revue Yip Yip Yaphank. From then on out, he had a string of popular hits, including “Blue Skies”, “Puttin’ on the Ritz”, “God Bless America”, and too many others to list. Berlin’s composing began to wind down after the 1940s, with the preceding decades being his most productive. In 1989, Irving Berlin died peacefully at the age of 101.
Okeh 41393 was recorded March 1, 1930 in New York City by Carl Webster and his Yale Collegians, playing two Irving Berlin tunes from the United Artists motion picture Puttin’ on the Ritz. Interestingly, these sides were apparently recorded on the same day the show premiered. The Yale Collegians consist of Stew Pletcher, Seelye Vidal, and Bob Stanley on trumpets, Andy Wiswell on trombone, Louis Rappaport (who later changed his name to Barry Wood) on clarinet and alto sax, Bob Bruce on cornet, clarinet, and alto sax, Hank Palmer on alto sax, Al Thompson on tenor sax, Sidney Fine on piano, Neil Waterman on guitar, Carl Webster on tuba and string bass, and Jimmy Devlin on drums.
The Yale Collegians rendition of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” is, I believe, the only original 1930 recording that can be considered hot jazz as opposed to the popular dance band styling, and it’s one of the best there ever was, if you ask me. Stew Pletcher sings the vocal on this side.
“With You” is not nearly as hot as the previous side, but it’s still a fine version of this ballad by a competent band. According to invaluable information from Mr. Paul Lindemeyer, the vocalist on this side is probably Dick Webster, Carl’s brother. He later worked with Jimmie Grier’s band in Los Angeles.