Roger Gilbert's evocative recollection of Charles Trenet inspired me to include this additional excerpt from Lawrence J. Epstein's At the Edge of a Dream: The Story of Jewish Immigrants on New York's Lower East Side: 1880-1920.
"Berlin never learned to read or write music. He played the piano...using just the black keys...Born in Russia and subject to excruciating poverty, Irving Berlin...began his musical life leading a singing beggar into cafes. Blind Sol let Berlin sing with him once in a while, and the young boy found that he enjoyed the experience so much that he began singing in the cafes himself....In 1906, Berlin became a singing waiter at Pelham's Cafe, inventing risque lyrics to parody current hits. Two singing waiters at another cafe had published a song aimed at Italians and the song had been successful. Pelham's decided it had better get in the song business as well and had its piano player compose a similar song. Berlin's lyrics were used, and so his first song, "Marie from Sunny Italy," was published on May 8, 1907, three days before his nineteenth birthday."