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Ace, Johnny (09 June 1929–25 December 1954), musician, songwriter, and rhythm and blues star, was born John Marshall Alexander, Jr., in Memphis, Tennessee, the son of John Marshall Alexander and Leslie Newsome. His father earned his living in Memphis as a packer, but his lifework was as a commuting minister to two rural Baptist churches in East Arkansas. At LaRose Grammar School in south Memphis, John, Jr., as his family called him, displayed both musical and artistic talent. He mastered the piano at home but was allowed to play only religious music there. Along with his mother and siblings, he sang in the choir at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Becoming restless at Booker T. Washington High School, he dropped out in the eleventh grade to join the navy and see the world. His sisters recall military police coming to the house in search of their brother and remember his brief period of enlistment in terms of weeks, ending in an “Undesirable Discharge” in 1947. His mother was furious. “I can’t keep up with you,” she scolded, “and ...

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Ager, Milton (06 October 1893–06 May 1979), songwriter, was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Simon Ager, a livestock dealer, and Fannie Nathan. The boy was educated first at Hull-House, Jane Addams’s famed Chicago settlement house, and later at McKinley High School. When an older sister bought a second-hand piano for ten cents a week, Ager quickly taught himself to play by ear. In the summer before high school he began to help support his large family by playing piano in amusement parks and movie theaters. By 1910, his junior year, he was determined to become a composer of popular music and copyrighted his first two songs....

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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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Harold Arlen Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1960. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-103724).

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Arlen, Harold (15 February 1905–23 April 1986), songwriter, was born Hyman Arluck in Buffalo, New York, the son of Samuel Arluck, a cantor. His mother’s name is not known. Arlen began his singing career performing in his father’s synagogue’s choir. His musical performing career began at age fifteen when, as a ragtime pianist, he formed the local Snappy Trio, which performed at small clubs and parties and on scenic cruises of Lake Erie. The trio grew into the Yankee Six and then into the larger Buffalodians. With this enlarged band Arlen traveled in the mid-1920s to New York, where he soon found work as a singer-pianist on radio and record. He also wrote a few arrangements for the popular ...

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Armstrong, Harry (22 July 1879–28 February 1951), vaudeville performer, pianist, and popular composer, was born Henry Worthington Armstrong in Somerville, Massachusetts, the son of Henry Armstrong, a piano salesman, and Elizabeth Stuart. Armstrong competed as a professional boxer before joining a street corner vocal quartet in Boston in 1896. He moved to New York in 1898 and played piano in a restaurant in Coney Island and later at the Sans Souci Music Hall in Manhattan. He composed and performed his own songs, many of which were published by the firm of M. Witmark, where Armstrong worked as a rehearsal pianist....

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Ball, Ernest R. (21 July 1878–03 May 1927), pianist and composer of popular songs, was born in Cleveland, Ohio, into a middle-class family. As a young teenager he was sent by his parents to study at the Cleveland Conservatory of Music. By age thirteen he was offering piano lessons in the neighborhood; by fifteen his first composition, a march for piano solo, was completed. As a young man he moved to New York City and for several years was employed as a pit pianist in various vaudeville productions. In 1903 he secured a position as staff pianist with the famous Witmark publishing house in Tin Pan Alley. His salary, $20 per week, was a respectable wage but far below what he eventually earned as a songwriter. Early in his stay at Witmark he began composing songs....

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Irving Berlin. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-108544).

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Berlin, Irving (11 May 1888–22 September 1989), songwriter and music publisher of the Tin Pan Alley era, was born Israel Baline in Tumen, in western Siberia, the son of Moses Baline, a cantor, and Leah Lipkin. Berlin was the youngest of eight children, six of whom emigrated with their parents to the United States in 1893 following a pogrom. After settling his family in a tenement on New York City’s Lower East Side, Berlin’s father could find only part-time employment as a kosher poultry inspector and manual laborer. The children were obliged to contribute to the family income. When not attending the local public school or receiving religious instruction at a ...

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Bland, James Allen (22 October 1854–05 May 1911), African-American minstrel performer and composer, was born in Flushing, Long Island, New York, the son of Allen M. Bland, an incipient lawyer, and Lidia Ann Cromwell of Brandywine, Delaware, of an emancipated family. Bland’s father, whose family had been free for several generations, attended law school at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and in 1867 became the first black to be appointed an examiner in the U.S. Patent Office....

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Bond, Johnny (01 June 1915–12 June 1978), songwriter, musician, and writer, was born Cyrus Whitfield Bond in Enville, Oklahoma, the son of Rufus Thomas Bond, a storekeeper and cotton gin operator, and Anna May Camp. While the family had little money, they did own a Victrola player that Bond found fascinating. Inspired by ...

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Bradford, Perry (14 February 1895–20 April 1970), blues and vaudeville songwriter, publisher, and musical director, was born John Henry Perry Bradford in Montgomery, Alabama, the son of Adam Bradford, a bricklayer and tile setter, and Bella (maiden name unknown), a cook. Standard reference books give his year of birth as 1893, but Bradford’s autobiography gives 1895. Early in his youth Bradford learned to play piano by ear. In 1901 the family moved to Atlanta, where his mother cooked meals for prisoners in the adjacent Fulton Street jail. There he was exposed to the inmates’ blues and folk singing. He attended Molly Pope School through the sixth grade and claimed to have attended Atlanta University for three years (there being no local high school). This is chronologically inconsistent, however, with his claim to have joined Allen’s New Orleans Minstrels in the fall of 1907, traveling to New Orleans for Mardi Gras performances in February 1908 and then moving on to Oklahoma....

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Braham, David (1838–11 April 1905), composer, conductor, and violinist, was born near London. His father and brother were musicians, as were two of his sons and four of his nephews. In his teens Braham decided to become a professional harpist but, according to one source, gave up the instrument when a British coach driver informed him that he was welcome aboard but his bulky instrument was not. Shortly thereafter he began studying the violin and became an accomplished performer though he never aspired to a career as a concert soloist. As a youth he played violin in various London music halls....

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Brown, James (03 May 1933–25 December 2006), soul singer, dancer, songwriter, and bandleader, was born in Barnwell, South Carolina, the son of Joe Gardner, an itinerant laborer, and Susie Behling. In his first autobiography he explains that his father took the surname Brown from the woman who raised him, and he claims that his own name was James Joe Junior Brown, then James Joe Brown, Jr., and finally, James Brown. But his birth certificate gives Joseph James Brown. He was raised mainly by his father in a physically abusive relationship, and by his father’s aunt Minnie Walker. His mother was present intermittently, apparently driven away by his father’s beatings. This was a pattern that Brown himself would reproduce in countless relationships with women....

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Brown, Lew (10 December 1893–05 February 1958), popular-song lyricist, was born Louis Brownstein in Odessa, in Ukraine (parents’ names unknown). At the age of five he came to the United States with his family, settling first in New Haven, Connecticut. The family then moved to New York City, where Brown attended DeWitt Clinton High School. At sixteen, Brown worked briefly as a lifeguard at Rockaway Beach, at the same time scribbling out parodies of and original lyrics for popular songs. His first break came when a publisher paid him $7 for “Please Don’t Take My Lovin’ Man Away,” which was first sung by ...

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Brown, Nacio Herb (22 February 1896–28 September 1964), songwriter, was born Ignacio Herb Brown in Deming, New Mexico, the son of a clarinet-playing law enforcement officer and former Wells Fargo agent and his wife, who taught Brown to play the piano. In 1902 the family moved to Los Angeles. There Brown graduated from Manual Arts High School, where he learned tailoring....

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Bryant, Boudleaux (13 February 1920–25 June 1987), songwriter, was born Diadorius Boudleaux Bryant in Shellman, Georgia, the son of Daniel Green Bryant, a lawyer and amateur musician, and Louise Farham. Boudleaux was the name of a man who had saved Daniel Bryant’s life in the First World War. When Bryant was young, his father moved the family to Moultrie, Georgia, where he practiced law. Bryant studied violin under a member of the Boston Symphony who had retired to Moultrie. He moved to Atlanta in 1937 and worked for both the Atlanta Symphony and for local rural string bands, as well as on Works Progress Administration projects....

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Burleigh, Henry Thacker (02 December 1866–12 September 1949), composer and spiritual singer, was born in Erie, Pennsylvania. Nothing is known about his parentage. When he was a little boy his excellent singing voice made him a sought-after performer in churches and synagogues in and around his hometown. In 1892, having decided on a career in music, Burleigh won a scholarship to the National Conservatory of Music in New York. His matriculation coincided with the arrival of the Czech composer ...

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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 ...