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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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Armstrong, Lil (03 February 1898–27 August 1971), jazz pianist, composer, and singer, was born Lillian Hardin in Memphis, Tennessee. Nothing is known of her father, but her mother, Dempsey Hardin, was a strict, churchgoing woman who disapproved of blues music. At age six, Lil began playing organ at home, and at eight she started studying piano. In 1914 she enrolled in the music school of Fisk University in Nashville, taking academic courses and studying piano and music theory. After earning her diploma, around 1917 she joined her mother in Chicago, where she found work demonstrating songs in Jones’ Music Store. Prompted by her employer, in 1918 Hardin auditioned for clarinetist Lawrence Duhé’s band at Bill Bottoms’s Dreamland Ballroom, where she played with cornetist “Sugar Johnny” Smith, trombonist Roy Palmer, and other New Orleans musicians. When Smith became too ill to continue working, he was replaced by first ...

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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).