Irving Berlin was arguably the most successful songwriter of the 20th century, so it’s fitting that his 100th birthday was celebrated in style. On the night of his 100th birthday—May 11, 1988—dozens of top artists recorded a concert special in his honor at Carnegie Hall. The two-hour show, Irving Berlin’s 100th Birthday Celebration, aired on CBS two weeks later, on May 27. Three months after that, on Aug. 28, it won two Emmys, including outstanding variety, music or comedy program.
There was, it probably goes without saying, no rock or rap on the show, but just about every other popular music form was represented. Frank Sinatra sang “Always.” Willie Nelson sang “Blue Skies,” which he had taken to No. 1 on Hot Country Songs in 1978. Ray Charles sang a bluesy “How Deep Is the Ocean.” Joe Williams, Billy Eckstine and Diane Schuur sang a jazz medley, including “Steppin’ Out with My Baby.” Opera star Marilyn Horne sang “God Bless America.”
The 40th annual Emmy Awards were held at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in Pasadena, Calif. The award for this special went to a team headed by executive producer Don Mischer. It marked the second time in a decade that a Berlin salute had won in this category. Steve & Eydie Celebrate Irving Berlin won in 1979.
Berlin has been at the forefront of American music for more than a century. His first smash hit was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” in 1911. In 2014, Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga‘s Cheek to Cheek entered the Billboard 200 at No. 1. The album, which contained two Berlin classics—the title song and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”—went on to win a Grammy for best traditional pop vocal album.
Berlin has had many other recent successes. In 2001, in the wake of 9/11, a compilation of patriotic songs titled God Bless America entered the Billboard 200 at No. 1. Celine Dion recorded the title track, which was made famous by Kate Smith. In 1999, a new production of Berlin’s 1946 Broadway hit Annie Get Your Gun won a Tony for best revival of a musical. Bernadette Peters starred in the role originated by Ethel Merman.
Berlin wrote the most popular Christmas song of all time (“White Christmas”), one of most beloved patriotic songs (“God Bless America”), one of the top show-biz anthems (“There’s No Business like Show Business”), and even a famous Easter song (“Easter Parade”).
Berlin won an Oscar for the 1942 classic “White Christmas,” introduced by Bing Crosby. He won a Tony for original music score in 1951 for Call Me Madam, which also starred Merman. He also received a spate of special awards keyed to milestone birthdays. He won a special Tony Award in 1963 (when he turned 75) and a lifetime achievement award from the Recording Academy in 1968 (when he turned 80). He received a second special Tony in 1978, when he turned 90.
Berlin made it to 101. He died on Sept. 22, 1989. His songs and shows live on.