There is no better time to pay tribute to Irving Berlin and his patriotic classic God Bless America than on the 4th of July. Irving Berlin is without question one of America’s most important composers and songwriters. It is admirable that although Berlin was an immigrant (he was born in Belarus and came to New York when he was 5), he adopted America as his home and demonstrated his patriotism through his songwriting.
In 1918, while serving in the Army at Camp Upton in Yaphank, New York, Berlin came up with the idea of writing God Bless America. It was intended for a military all-soldier musical he wrote called “Yip Yip Yaphank.” However, he decided not to do anything with it at the time.
It wasn’t until two decades later that he revived the patriotic tune. On Armistice Day (the anniversary of the end of WWI) in 1938, he presented God Bless America to the public. Singer/radio host Kate Smith introduced and sang God Bless America for the first time on her radio show.
The song quickly became a sensation, offering a collective prayer for the unease over the approaching war and the hit song even rivaled the national anthem at a certain point.
God Bless America was soon making a considerable amount of royalties. Berlin felt it was improper to collect royalties on a patriotic ode and thereby established a trust, the God Bless America Fund, which distributed all profits to the Boy & Girl Scouts of America.
During WWII he wrote Any Bonds Today for the government and wrote the songs for another all-soldier show, “This is the Army.” Featured in this musical, was Kate Smith’s rendition of God Bless America along with other Berlin songs.
Berlin not only became famous for his patriotic songs, but he also wrote love ballads, music for Broadway and Hollywood. His songs were performed by artists such as Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Dick Powell, Alice Faye and many others.
On May 5th, 1968 The Ed Sullivan Show dedicated an entire episode to Irving Berlin in honor of his 80th birthday. Artist such as Peter Gennaro, Robert Goulet, Kate Smith, Bob Hope, The Supremes and Bing Crosby gathered on the Sullivan stage to pay tribute to Berlin.
That night the show was full of great acts saluting Irving Berlin. Peter Gennaro performed a song from Berlin’s musical “This is the Army,” Robert Goulet performed a medley of Berlin’s most famous ballads including I Used to Play it by Ear, Bing Crosby sang White Christmas from his 1954 musical film, Diana Ross and The Supremes paid tribute with a version of the ballad “Always” and Ethel Merman performed There is No Business Like Show Business from the 1946 Broadway hit. Furthermore, a scene from the musical film “This is the Army” in which Berlin performs his hit song Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning was screened. Other acts that night included a stand-up performance by Bob Hope.
At the end of the show, Irving Berlin came on stage and Ed Sullivan asked him “How does it feel to listen to this tribute?” He shook Ed Sullivan’s hand and responded, “I’m choked up about it, what a great, great show!”
After, Berlin took the Sullivan stage and performed God Bless America. He started singing the song gently with only a piano in the background; however towards the middle of the song, the melody grew louder, the stage curtains behind him opened and a choir of young boy and girl scouts joined Berlin on stage and sang the rest of the song with him.
As soon as he finished the piece, Irving Berlin was surprised with a birthday cake and all of the artists from that night gathered with him on the stage as they sang happy birthday.
Irving Berlin’s songs have become part of American history and continue to impact our society. Whether it is with an interpretation of God Bless America at sports events or White Christmas playing at the grocery store during the holiday season, every year millions of Americans are touched by his songs.
The tribute show to Irving Berlin on The Ed Sullivan Show confirmed how big of an influence Berlin has had on Broadway, Hollywood and the American music scene in general. As songwriter Jerome Kern once said about Irving Berlin, “He has no place in American music. He is American music.”