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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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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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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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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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Swift, Kay (19 April 1897–28 January 1993), composer, lyricist, and songwriter, was born Katharine Faulkner Swift in New York City, the daughter of Samuel Swift, a music critic, and Ellen Faulkner Swift, an interior decorator. She began her musical studies at the age of seven, later won a scholarship to the Institute of Musical Arts (now the Juilliard School), and in 1920–1921 attended the New England Conservatory, where she studied piano with Heinrich Gebhard and composition with ...

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Kay Swift. Courtesy of Katharine Weber and Benjamin Sears.