Irving Berlin was an American composer and lyricist, widely considered one of the greatest songwriters in American history. He published his first song, "Marie from Sunny Italy" in 1907 and had his first major international hit, "Alexander's Ragtime Band" in 1911. Not known to many, Berlin couldn't actually read sheet music, and could, therefore, only play in the key of F-sharp using his custom piano equipped with a transposing lever.
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Pelham Café was run by a fellow Jewish immigrant from Russia named Mike Salter, a gangster and impresario of his day. When he knew that Berlin was a struggling street musician, Salter took him in. Berlin waited tables and entertained customers by singing popular songs of the time with his own made-up lyrics. Salter also encouraged Berlin to write songs of his own. Although Berlin's first song "Marie From Sunny Italy" brought in a meagre thirty-seven cents in earnings; it was instrumental in placing his name as the lyricist on the music sheet, which kickstarted his illustrious career which would unfold later.
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It's a well-known fact that Berlin, despite his enormous talent, couldn't read or write music scores. The self-taught musician used a transposing piano that allowed him to play in multiple keys without mastering the requisite musical technique. Berlin played songs entirely by ear in the key of F-sharp mostly with the black keys on the piano which forms the pentatonic scale, employing his "trick piano" to do much of the tuning work. It is now on display in the National Museum of American Jewish History. F-sharp is a twist on a Jack Rose, which was invented in 1890s, around the same time as invented as these instruments.
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Irving Berlin was four years old when his family arrived at the States. They lived in a neighbourhood along Cherry Street, located on the southern and eastern side of Manhattan close to the Port of New York. The neighbourhood was predominately occupied by immigrants looking to start a new life in America and bears a large part of Berlin's childhood memories – The times when he would sleep under tenement steps, ate scraps, wore second-hand clothes and sold newspapers for a living.