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Charles, Ray (23 September 1930–10 June 2004), pop and jazz singer, pianist, and composer, was born Ray Charles Robinson in Albany, Georgia, the son of Bailey Robinson, a laborer, and Aretha Williams. Williams, a teenage orphan, lived in Greenville, Florida, with Robinson's mother and his wife, Mary Jane Robinson. The Robinson family had informally adopted her, and she became known as Aretha Robinson. Scandalously Aretha became pregnant by Bailey Robinson, and she briefly left Greenville late in the summer of 1930 to be with relatives in Albany for the baby's birth. Mother and child then returned to Greenville, and Aretha and Mary Jane shared Ray Charles's upbringing. He was deeply devoted to his mother and later recalled her perseverance, self-sufficiency, and pride as guiding lights in his life. His father abandoned the family and took another wife elsewhere....

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Ray Charles. Gelatin silver print, c. 1961, by Michel Salou. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

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Nat King Cole © William P. Gottlieb; used by permission. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress (LC-GLB23-0151 DLC).

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Cole, Nat King (17 March 1919–15 February 1965), pianist and singer, was born Nathaniel Adams Coles in Montgomery, Alabama, the son of the Reverend Edward James Coles, Sr., and Perlina Adams, a musician. Cole’s family moved to Chicago when he was four. He first studied piano with his mother, then with bassist Milt Hinton’s mother, and at the age of twelve, classical piano with a Professor Thomas. The family home was located near the Grand Terrace Ballroom, where Cole often heard his first and most important influence, pianist ...

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Hughes, Revella Eudosia (02 July 1895–24 October 1987), musician, singer, and educator, was born in Huntington, West Virginia, the daughter of George W. Hughes, a postman, and Annie B. (maiden name unknown), a piano teacher and seamstress. At age five Hughes began studying piano with her mother and, at eight or nine, violin with a musician friend of her father’s. She attended Huntington’s segregated public schools. Disturbed when Hughes was racially harassed, her parents sent her to Hartshorn Memorial College (later part of Virginia Union University) in Richmond, which she attended from 1909 to 1911, graduating with a degree in music and elementary studies. She attended Oberlin High and Conservatory, graduating in 1915. In 1917 she earned a bachelor of music in piano from Howard’s Conservatory of Music, where she studied piano with LeRoy Tibbs and voice with conservatory director ...

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Liberace (16 May 1919–04 February 1987), entertainer, was born Wladziu Valentino Liberace in West Allis, Wisconsin, the son of Salvatore (Sam) Liberace, an often unemployed french horn player, and Frances Zuchowski, a coproprietor of a mom-and-pop grocery store. Liberace, called Walter at home, was a sole-surviving twin and the third of four children. By the age of four he could play by ear and at seven performed Paderewski’s Minuet in G for the composer, who advised the family to take the boy’s talent seriously. A scholarship to the Wisconsin College of Music in Milwaukee was awarded him in 1926....

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Mana-Zucca (25 December 1885–08 March 1981), pianist, singer, and composer, was born Gizella Zuccamanov in New York City, the daughter of Samuel Shepard Zuccamanov (later changed to Zuccaman) and Yachnia (later changed to Jasmine; maiden name unknown), both émigrés from Poland. At the time of her birth, the Zuccamans lived in the Harlem section of Manhattan. Mana-Zucca showed an interest in music at a very early age. Given a toy piano at the age of three, she could not play the half tones, which she found upsetting. Her parents were anxious to let her study piano, and her first studies were with a Russian neighbor named Patotnikoff. After some initial lessons with him, she continued with a Russian immigrant by the name of Platon Brounoff and at the age of three and a half gave her first recital at a small neighborhood social hall. Shortly thereafter, her father took her to audition at the National Conservatory of Music (New York City), where at the age of four she was admitted on scholarship. Her first teachers at the conservatory were the Misses Margulies and Okell. Her first professional engagement was in Stamford, Connecticut, at the home of Dr. and Mrs. Phillips, who paid her $10 as a concert fee....

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Ray, Johnnie (10 January 1927–24 February 1990), popular singer, pianist, and composer, was born John Alvin Ray in Dallas, Oregon, the son of Elmer Ray and Hazel (maiden name unknown). At age twelve Ray became deaf in his right ear and subsequently wore a hearing aid. Influenced by gospel and rhythm and blues, Ray was a self-taught pianist and vocalist. He began singing on Portland radio and performing in bars and clubs in Portland and in Hollywood, California, at the age of fifteen, and by the late 1940s he was performing small dates throughout the country. In 1951 he attained valuable exposure at Detroit’s Flame club....

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Short, Bobby (15 September 1924–21 March 2005), pianist and singer, was born Robert Waltrip Short in Danville, Illinois, the ninth of ten children of Rodman Jacob Short and Myrtle Render Short. Both parents were African American; Rodman Short was the son of a freed slave. The Shorts had moved to Danville from Kentucky prior to Bobby's birth so that Rodman, who had held various skilled jobs, could find work. He became a coal miner to support the family, and Myrtle Short worked as a housekeeper....

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Bobby Short. Chromogenic print, 1990, by Yousuf Karsh. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

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Waller, Fats (21 May 1904–15 December 1943), jazz and popular pianist, singer, and songwriter, was born Thomas Wright Waller in New York City, the son of Edward Martin Waller, a Baptist preacher, and Adeline Lockett. From age six Waller was devoted to the piano but initially failed to practice properly or learn to read music well, because he could memorize lessons immediately. In his youth he also played reed organ in church. He studied piano, string bass, and violin at P.S. 89, which he attended to about age fourteen or fifteen. Although his girth had earned him a nickname by this time, the names Thomas and Fats appeared interchangeably (and sometimes together, as Thomas “Fats” Waller) in his professional work until at least 1931. Later in his career, and posthumously, the nickname prevailed....