Irving Berlin (1888–1989) was unable to read or write music and could only play the piano in the key of F-sharp major; yet, for the first half of the twentieth century he was America’s most successful and most representative songwriter, composing such hits as “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “White Christmas,” “Anything You Can Do,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” and “God Bless America.” As Thousands Cheer, winner of the Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Award, explores with precision and sensitivity Berlin’s long, prolific career; his self-doubt and late-blooming misanthropy; and the tyrannical control he exerted over his legacy of song. From his immigrant beginnings through Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood to his reclusive and bitter final years, this definitive biography reveals the man who wrote 1500 songs but could never quash the fear that, for all his success, he wasn’t quite good enough.
Review by Michael Connery
Laurence Bergreen’s As Thousands Cheer is a detailed study of one of the greatest songwriters in musical history. Irving Berlin comes to life on the pages of Bergreen’s biography, a man who was quicksilver, prolific, driven, and brilliant. He is presented as a fully rounded figure here, complex and tireless, but even at the end a man so intensely and guardedly private that he remains a stranger.
Bergreen’s work is extensively researched with rigorous attention to detail. His writing style is straightforward and unadorned, academic but approachable. The author manages to recreate the evolving landscape in which Berlin existed, wrote, and composed in vivid detail. His approach to the musical icon’s life is comprehensive and insightful, exploring in a chronological fashion the events that shaped Berlin both personally and professionally.
The author follows the young Russian Jew named Israel Baline from Ellis Island to the mean streets of the Lower East Side to the lights of Broadway to the wealth of Manhattan to the silver screens of Hollywood. The story of Irving Berlin is a classic rags to riches immigrant story, one like so many lived out in America, but Irving’s talent, timeliness, and relentlessness catapulted him from extreme poverty to extreme wealth, from desperation to survive to the fame of being a household name.
Bergreen details not only the life of the songwriting genius—whose own singing and musical abilities were less than stellar—but the history of entertainment over the course of the twentieth century. Shaped and reshaped by changing ideals, wars, and politics, the entertainment industry is as much a character in this biography as Berlin himself. Bergreen provides a fascinating and thorough glimpse into a by-gone era.
Bergreen steers away from presenting Berlin as larger than life. Instead, he gives the reader an authentic, intimate glimpse into the life of a man who had an aggressive penchant for self-criticism, a shortsightedness in business matters, and a tendency to obsessively take refuge in his music. Painfully shy, sensitive, prone to grudges, and oft times verbally abusive, Berlin was both a craftsman and a businessman. But he was also solitary to the point of reclusiveness, miserly and misanthropic in his old age, a sufferer of lifelong insomnia and later depression and dependency on sleeping pills.
Poignant and engaging, detailed and vivid, As Thousands Cheer is a masterful entry in biographical nonfiction. The weighty tome includes two insets of black and white photographs and extensive notes. It is also peppered with quotes and cameos from recognizable historical and entertainment figures. The portrait Bergreen paints of Irving Berlin in his thorough biography is a nuanced, multi-dimensional one. It is both a nod to the whirlwind world of entertainment in the first half of the twentieth century and an ode to a man who diligently carved out a place for himself in that world.
Highly recommended for fans of biographical nonfiction and particularly for readers interested in music history and the twentieth century entertainment industry