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Allen, Steve (26 December 1921–30 October 2000), comedian, author, songwriter, was born Stephen Valentine Patrick William Allen in New York City, the son of vaudeville comedians Carroll William Allen and Isabelle Donohue, who performed under the stage names Billy Allen and Belle Montrose. Literally born into show business, Allen toured the vaudeville circuit with his parents from infancy until his father died suddenly when Allen was only eighteen months old. Because his mother chose to continue her career, she left her young son in the care of her eccentric family in Chicago. In his first autobiography, ...

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Steve Allen Used with the permission of Bill Allen, Meadowlane Enterprises, Inc.

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Caesar, Irving (04 July 1895–17 December 1996), songwriter, was born Isidore Caesar in New York City's Henry Street settlement, the son of Morris Caesar, the owner of a secondhand bookstore, and Sophia Selinger Caesar. He attended the Chappaqua Mountain Institute, graduated from New York City's Townsend Harris Hall High School in 1914, and was briefly enrolled at the City College of New York before going to Detroit in 1915 to work for the Ford Motor Company as a mechanic. Caesar also served as secretary to ...

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Irving Caesar. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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Chapin, Harry Forster (07 December 1942–16 July 1981), popular singer and writer of topical songs, was born in New York City, the son of James Forbes Chapin, a big-band percussionist, and Elspeth Burke. As a high school student, Chapin sang in the Brooklyn Heights Boys Choir and, later, played guitar, banjo, and trumpet in a band that included his father and brothers Stephen Chapin and Tom Chapin. He attended the U.S. Air Force Academy briefly and studied at Cornell University from 1960 to 1964. Chapin was best known for his popular ballads, films, and cultural and humanitarian work for the cause of eradicating world hunger. He married Sandra Campbell Gaston in 1968; they had five children....

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George M. Cohan Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1933. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LOT 12735, no. 236 P&P).

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Cohan, George M. (3 or 4 July 1878–05 November 1942), performer, writer of songs, musicals, and plays, and producer, was born in Providence, Rhode Island, the son of Jeremiah “Jerry” John Cohan and Helen “Nellie” Frances Costigan. (Cohan’s middle initial stands for Michael.) At the age of seven, Cohan was sent to the E Street School in Providence. His formal schooling lasted six weeks, after which the school sent him to rejoin his parents and sister, Josie, in their theatrical travels. He took violin lessons and played the instrument both in the theater orchestra and in a trick violin act he devised. The Cohans went on their first road show as a family in 1889; when the show failed they went back to ...

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Coward, Noël (16 December 1899–26 March 1973), playwright, songwriter, and performer, was born Noël Peirce Coward in Teddington, England, the son of Arthur Sabin Coward, a generally unsuccessful traveling piano salesman, and Violet Agnes Veitch. Coward’s American connections began at age sixteen as an extra in a ...

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Donaldson, Walter (15 February 1893–15 July 1947), popular-song composer, lyricist, and publisher, was born in Brooklyn, New York. The names of his parents are not known. Although his mother was a music teacher, Donaldson seems never to have taken music lessons; instead, he learned to play the piano by ear. While still in high school, he began writing songs, and after graduation he found employment on Wall Street, but he soon gave that up in favor of popular music. For a time he worked as a Tin Pan Alley song plugger at $15 a week; however, his addiction to writing his own songs during working hours cost him his job. His first song to make a public impression was “Just Try to Picture Me Down Home in Tennessee” (1915; lyrics by William Jerome), about a state he had never seen. World War I found him in the Entertainment Division of the U.S. Army, where he met ...

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Flanagan, William (14 August 1923–01 September 1969), composer and journalist, was born in Detroit, Michigan, the son of William Flanagan and Elona (maiden name unknown), both of whom worked for the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. As his was a nonmusical family, Flanagan received very little training as a child besides exposure to the scores of ...

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Gilbert, Ray (15 September 1912–03 March 1976), lyricist and composer of popular songs, was born in Hartford, Connecticut, the son of Jacob Kalin, a Russian-Jewish immigrant, and Mina Freeman, a Swedish immigrant. During his childhood the family moved to Chicago, where he graduated from Senn High School in 1930. After graduation Gilbert became a sketch writer for various vaudeville talents, including ...

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Golden, John (27 June 1874–17 June 1955), theatrical producer, songwriter, and playwright, was born in New York City, the son of Joel Golden, a teacher and proprietor of a summer hotel, and Amelia Tyreler. Raised in Wauseon, Ohio, he went to New York at age fourteen to pursue a career as an actor. For seven years he struggled, accepting odd jobs and selling comic verses, the latter written after the manner of W. S. Gilbert, to the weekly humor magazines ...

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Hays, Will S. (19 July 1837–23 July 1907), songwriter, poet, and editor, was born William Shakespeare Hays in Louisville, Kentucky, the son of Hugh Hays, a successful manufacturer of farming equipment, and Martha Richardson, an amateur musician and writer. Although he early showed signs of musical aptitude, his formal training extended no further than a few violin lessons. He attended small colleges in Hanover, Indiana; Clarksville, Tennessee; and Georgetown, Kentucky, in 1856–1857. During this time he published his first song, “Little Ones at Home,” for which he wrote only the text. Hays returned to Louisville and worked in a music store. There he began to compose melodies for his poems, among the first of which was “Evangeline” (1857), musically in a style that acknowledged an important debt to the vogue for Italian opera. This turned out to be his first hit, selling perhaps as many as 300,000 copies. It was during his time at D. P. Faulds’s music store that Hays allegedly composed the original version of “Dixie,” a claim made by Faulds himself more than thirty years later and corroborated then by Hays. (This story has never been supported by evidence other than hearsay, and ...

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Johnny Mercer, c. 1946-1948. © William P. Gottlieb; used by permission. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress (LC-GLB23-0612 DLC).

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Mercer, Johnny (18 November 1909–25 June 1976), popular composer, lyricist, and singer, was born John Herndon Mercer in Savannah, Georgia, the son of George Mercer, an attorney, and Lillian Ciucevich. Throughout his childhood Mercer was fascinated with the popular songs of the day as well as by Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and the blues and spirituals of southern blacks. From 1922 to 1927 he attended Virginia’s Woodbury Forest Preparatory School, where he wrote light verse and songs. Shortly after graduation he pursued a career as an actor and singer in New York. There he married Ginger Meehan, a dancer, in 1931 and soon had two children. While his acting career languished, success as a songwriter came in 1933 when he collaborated with ...

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Cole Porter. Charcoal on paper, 1953, by Soss Efram Melik. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

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Porter, Cole (09 June 1891–15 October 1964), songwriter, was born in Peru, Indiana, the son of Samuel Fenwick Porter, a druggist and farmer, and Kate Cole. His mother (who added Cole’s middle name, Albert, later) arranged to have one of his songs published when he was eleven. Porter’s education at Worcester Academy, Yale (B.A., 1913), and Harvard’s law and music schools (1914–1915) was financed by his maternal grandfather, James Omar Cole....

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Scott-Heron, Gilbert (1 April 1949–27 May 2011), poet, songwriter, singer, and pianist, was born in Chicago, the son of Gilbert Saint Elmo Heron, a Jamaican-born soccer player, and Robert Jamison Scott, a librarian. (His mother Bobbie Scott was named Robert, after her father, despite the gender implications.) His parents’ relationship was contentious and soon disintegrated. His father returned to his own family in Detroit in ...

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Smith, Samuel Francis (21 October 1808–16 November 1895), editor, Baptist clergyman, and author, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Samuel Smith and Sarah Bryant. Young Smith was educated at both the Eliot School and the Boston Latin School, where he received the distinguished Franklin medal in 1825. At Harvard College, Smith became part of the famous class of 1829, which also included ...

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Zunser, Eliakum (28 October 1836–22 September 1913), poet and composer of Yiddish songs, was born in Vilna (later Vilnius), Russia, the son of Feive Zunser, a carpenter, and Etta Kayle. His family name probably came from Zunse, a nearby village. His father died when Eliakum was eleven, and the family moved into the home of his mother’s sister. Zunser’s formal education was limited by his boyhood apprenticeship to an embroiderer, where he learned to sew gold thread on civil and military uniforms, but he read Hebrew and studied the Talmud in his spare time....