The Lower East Side was a place that the multitudes came for a new life. They stormed the shores of New York harbor on ships from Hamburg, Liverpool, Cork, Palermo, Naples, and many others. And for a time, the greatest number were fleeing the lands of Eastern Europe. Jewish immigrants from all over the Russian Empire joined the rest of Europe in one of the great migrations of modern time. And they crowded themselves into Lower Manhattan. So thick they were that a square mile of the neighborhood was home to 500,000 residents. Over the generations these families would rise up out of the slums, but there were a lucky few who made it big. One of these lucky few was a young man who came with his family from the Russian Empire in 1893. His name was Israel Baline, but the world knows him as Irving Berlin.
It's not entirely sure where Berlin was born, but it was during the Russian Empire's systematic abuses of Jewish residents that his family joined the cascade of refugees travelling to the US. His father was a cantor, and though he couldn't get a job as a cantor in New York, he still gave a great love of music to his son Israel. His father's death when he was 13 forced young Izzy into the same situation so many immigrant children found themselves in, forced to work to support the family.
Izzy was one of the many hordes of young children in Manhattan's slums working as newsboys and bootblacks on the streets. Eventually, as a teenager he would turn to singing songs on the street or in Bowery dives for change. He had left the family and was living in cheap flophouses. He had little education and so turned his full efforts to a music career. His first proper job was at the age of 16 at a music hall in Union Square. He would play pieces of sheet music on a piano that customers were interested in buying. He slowly began learning on piano, though throughout his career he would only ever be able to play in one key. When he turned 18 is when his career started taking off from a very unlikely launch pad: Chinatown.
New York's Chinatown of the early 1900s was nothing like today. It wasn't the bustle of markets and shops patronized by Chinese families of today, but instead a seedy district of all male Chinese laborers, bawdy restaurants, taverns, and drug dens. It was during this time that Chinese tongs battle for control of the vice industry and next door Doyers Street would earn the nickname "The Bloody Angle." But it wasn't only the Chinese running and patronizing the gin joints and dance halls. Many New Yorkers and tourists alike were lured by the image of the exotic orient. Food and entertainment often catered to the broad stereotypes outsiders had of Chinese culture with over the top decor and menu items like chop suey and moo goo gai pan--dishes not found in China by the way. It was at the end of Pell Street, in this milieu of entertainment and exoticism, that a fellow Russian Jew and corrupt Tammany Hall thug named Mike Salter ran a saloon called the Pelham Cafe.
Salter was no nameless thug, he was the chef lieutenant of Big Tom Foley, the Tammany bigwig for whom Foley Square nearby is named. Salter's diligence in assuring that only Tammany votes were cast at the ballot made him a valuable man, and the Pelham was his reward. He hosted the big names of high and low society, and music and drink were always flowing. Izzy was hired as a singing waiter and he would team up with the house pianist to rework the lyrics to popular songs into vulgar comedic versions. These "blue" versions became big draws and Izzy was one of the highlights of a visit to the Pelham.
The Pelham became a favorite of one of the Bowery's most unique characters, Chuck Connors. Chuck was known as a the "Mayor of Chinatown" and he had long been a regular in the tiny streets of the neighborhood. He was a lifelong grifter, showman, con-artist, and entertainer. He would lead tours through the "underbelly" of Chinatown that were mostly staged opium dens, sex slaves, and knife fights that he arranged through his Chinatown friends. Often the tours would end at the Pelham, where the patrons could go upstairs for a view of supposed prostitute "Chinatown Gertie" who put on a kimono and an opium pipe and charged 50 cents for a peek through the window, and then would split the proceeds with Connors. The crowd always enjoyed Izzy's singing and eventually the Pelham would attract some very high end clientele, including Connors leading British Royal, and naval admiral Prince Louis of Brattenberg along with New York financier August Belmont on a trip to Chinatown's drug dens where they heard Izzy sing. It was in this time that Izzy's first song would be published. A cheesy romp called "Marie from Sunny Italy" that earned him 37 cents. On the sheet music his name appeared as I. Berlin. Within a few years, Berlin would begin catching the ear of serious music producers and he would get new jobs in saloons and working with more songwriters. At the age of 20, Berlin's song "Alexander's Ragtime Band" would become an immense national sensation and his career would leave the dumps of the Bowery behind.
Berlin's musicianship would remain limited his entire career, but his songwriting became a new standard for American music. He would write songs in the 1910s for Venron and Irene Castle, the most popular dance duo in the country. He wrote songs for the Ziegfeld Follies. He would write songs for the armed forces during WWI and in the 1920s would establish himself at the Music Box Theater on Broadway, which would serve as a platform for revues of his songs. He wrote ballads of love and simple sentiment, expressed in a way that seemed to come from a place of deep understanding. As he put it, his songs tried to "reach the heart of the average American, not the highbrow nor the lowbrow but that vast intermediate crew which is the real soul of the country."
One of Berlin's biggest hits was "Puttin' on the Ritz" from 1930. The song would be performed by Harry Richman and later Clark Gable, but didn't become really famous until 1946 when it was featured the the Fred Astaire film Blue Skies. The 1946 version has lyrics referencing the well-to-do parading up and down Park Avenue, but the original lyrics feature instead the residents of Harlem getting dressed to the nines and stepping out on Lenox Avenue. Either way, the song is instantly recognizable from its syncopated and oddly structured lyrics where each verse has its stresses on an unexpected note. It's jarring and unpredictable and finally resolves itself at the end of each verse with a pause, and the lyrics "puttin' on the ritz" in perfect rhythm. The song is a standard of stage, screen, and new york nightlife. It's an ode to stepping out and hitting the town. And no matter which version you prefer, that unmistakable melody gets stuck in your head the rest of the day every time you walk down the street.
Irving Berlin is one of the great tales of immigrant New York. A kid who came up from the gutters to define what it meant to be American. It seems only fitting that the man who wrote "God Bless America" would be a Jewish kid who got his start in a Chinatown saloon. Enjoy this amazing clip of Harry Richman performing the original 1930 number.