His voice is high and raspy and not pretty, but fans of show music will be eager to pick up "Irving Sings Berlin," the fifth disc in a series of recordings with American songwriters singing their own works.
On May 22, the Koch label released the new disc of Irving Berlin singing hits and arcana culled from radio broadcasts and long-shelved "demo" records. Producer Steve Nelson, who has shepherded the series over the past decade, admits the recordings have a rarefied appeal, but he, Koch and the Library of Congress are committed to the project, which offers "a clear, engaging window on our greatest songs." With funding from the Library of Congress for labor and research, the discs "make available a recorded legacy of the creative process."
The search for recorded material leads Nelson to museums, private collectors, ASCAP and others rights organizations, movie studios, family members and beyond.
Who buys the discs?
"We have people who are taken with obscure material or chestnuts, or are interested in the songwriters themselves," Nelson told Playbill On-Line. He added that much of the material on the albums is "new to the listener" and appeals to both fetishist and passive fan. Fans may not be familiar with these ditties from 1910-15: "Call Me Up Some Rainy Afternoon," "That Mysterious Rag," "I Want to be in Dixie," "Ragtime Violin!" or in "My Harem," but they are all here (from a 1934 NBC radio broadcast), along with less-scratchy demo recordings from the Broadway musicals, Miss Liberty, Call Me Madam and Mr. President.
Echoing the illuminating liner notes by Amy Asch, Nelson said, "People forget that when Jerome Kern made his  remark about Berlin 'having no place in American music, he is American music,' there was still this vast catalog of hits to be written." [Full disclosure: Asch is a part time employee of Playbill On-Line.]
When Knopf publishes "The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin" in the fall, Nelson observed, "People are going to be shocked at the sheer number of songs."
"The overall goal was to create something listenable to give a sense of Berlin as performer," said Nelson. "To me, that's what got me into this in the first place: When I heard Cole Porter singing, I was captivated."
"Cole Sings Porter" was the first Koch disc, followed by "Sammy Sings Fain," "Yip Sings Harburg" and "Frank Sings Loesser."
When the songwriter sings, "so much emerges of the mind behind the song," Nelson said.
Of Berlin's singing style, Nelson said, "The ability for Berlin to make that simple thing seem fresh, that's the genius. [And] the way he pushes is such an earnest and unfettered way..."
The demonstration records, made during rehearsals for shows, offer a look at the Broadway writing process — many of the lyrics heard here would be changed or the songs simply cut from the shows. "It's really interesting to hear process here," Nelson said. "A lot of the time with demos, they're trying to figure out what they're writing...trying to figure out how it sounds, how it hits the air."
"Irving Sings Berlin" includes:
"What Can a Songwriter Say?"
"Let Me Sing and I'm Happy" (Al Jolson)
"Mandy" (Berlin, Eddie Cantor and Jolson)
"Marie From Sunny Italy"
"Follow the Crowd"
"Call Me Up Some Rainy Day"
"That Mysterious Rag"
"I Want to Be in Dixie"
"In My Harem"
"He's a Devil in His Own Hometown"
"Alexander's Ragtime Band"
"Oh! How I Hate to Get up in the Morning"
"Let's Take an Old-Fashioned Walk"
"Paris Wakes Up and Smiles"
"Just One Way to Say I Love You"
"The Policeman's Ball"
"What Do I Have to Do to Get My Picture in the Paper?"
"The Hon'rable Profession of the Fourth Estate"
"Business for a Good Girl Is Bad"
"Sing a Song of Sing Sing"
"The Story of Nell and the Police Gazette"
"Marrying for Love"
"It's a Lovely Day Today"
"The Best Thing for You"
"It Gets Lonely in the White House"
"God Bless America"
— By Kenneth Jones