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Abbott, Emma (09 December 1850–05 January 1891), soprano and opera impresario, was born in Chicago, Illinois, the daughter of Seth Abbott, an itinerant musician and music teacher, and Almira Palmer. Abbott’s father encouraged her and her brother George to develop the musical ability that they demonstrated at an early age. Emma, who sang constantly as a child, chose the guitar as her instrument; her brother studied the violin. In 1854 the family moved from Chicago to Peoria, Illinois, and their fortunes declined. To supplement the family income Seth Abbott and the two musical children began to give concerts in Peoria and elsewhere starting in 1859; according to contemporary biographical lexicographer F. O. Jones, the trio performed hundreds of concerts during this period....

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Marian Anderson Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1940. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LOT 12735, no. 49 P&P).

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Anderson, Marian (17 February 1897–08 April 1993), contralto, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the daughter of John Berkeley Anderson, a refrigerator room employee at the Reading Terminal Market, an ice and coal dealer, and a barber, and Anne (also seen as “Annie” and “Anna,” maiden name unknown), a former schoolteacher. John Anderson’s various jobs provided only a meager income, and after his death, before Marian was a teenager, her mother’s income as a laundress and laborer at Wannamaker Department Store was even less. Yet, as Anderson later recalled, neither she nor her two younger sisters thought of themselves as poor. When Marian was about eight her father purchased a piano from his brother; she proceeded to teach herself how to play it and became good enough to accompany herself. Also as a youngster, having seen a violin in a pawn shop window, she became determined to purchase it and earned the requisite $4 by scrubbing her neighbors’ steps. She attempted to teach herself the violin as well but discovered that she had little aptitude for the instrument....

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Louis Armstrong © William P. Gottlieb; used by permission. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress (LC-GLB13-0017 DLC).

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Armstrong, Louis (04 August 1901–06 July 1971), jazz trumpeter and singer, , known universally as “Satchmo” and later as “Pops,” was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, the illegitimate son of William Armstrong, a boiler stoker in a turpentine plant, and Mary Est “Mayann” Albert, a laundress. Abandoned by his father shortly after birth, Armstrong was raised by his paternal grandmother, Josephine, until he was returned to his mother’s care at age five. Mother and son moved from Jane Alley, in a violence-torn slum, to an only slightly better area, Franklyn and Perdido streets, where nearby cheap cabarets gave the boy his first introduction to the new kind of music, jazz, that was developing in New Orleans. Although Armstrong claims to have heard the early jazz cornetist ...

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Arnold, Eddy (15 May 1918–8 May 2008), country music singer, was born Richard Edward Arnold near the West Tennessee town of Henderson, the youngest child of William Arnold and Georgia Wright Arnold. Cotton farmers, the Arnold family lost its land after the death of William in ...

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Baccaloni, Salvatore (14 April 1900–31 December 1969), opera singer, was born in Rome, Italy, the son of Joaquin Baccaloni, a building contractor, and Ferminia Desideri. Young Salvatore attended Rome’s San Salvatore in Lauro School, where he received vocal instruction, eventually obtaining a soprano post in 1906 with St. Peter’s Sistine Chapel Choir. As a child Baccaloni earned a wage equivalent to that of a government clerk, singing mass litanies and Gregorian chants three times a week. When his voice broke at age twelve, however, he was forced to briefly abandon his singing career until he made the usual transition to bass....

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Pearl Bailey In her costume from St. Louis Woman. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1946. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-103735).

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Bailey, Pearl (29 March 1918–17 August 1990), actress, singer, and entertainer, was born Pearl Mae Bailey in Newport News, Virginia, the daughter of the Reverend Joseph James Bailey and Ella Mae (maiden name unknown). Her brother Bill Bailey was at one time a well-known tap dancer....

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Baker, Belle (25 December 1895–28 April 1957), singer, was born Bella Becker in New York City’s Lower East Side, the daughter of Chaim Becker, a pushcart peddler, and Sarah (maiden name unknown), both immigrants from Russia. Baker left school at an early age—most sources say nine—and went to work in sweatshops, primarily shirtwaist factories and laundries. At age eleven she landed a job as a singer at the Cannon Street Music Hall, located near her home. There she was spotted by ...

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Josephine Baker Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1949. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-93000).

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Baker, Josephine (03 June 1906–12 April 1975), dancer, singer, and civil rights activist, was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of Eddie Carson, a musician, and Carrie Macdonald. Her parents parted when Josephine was still an infant, and her mother married Arthur Martin, which has led to some confusion about her maiden name. Very little is known about her childhood, except that she was a witness to the East St. Louis riot in 1917. This event was often a feature of her talks in the 1950s and 1960s about racism and the fight for equality, which fostered the oft-repeated assertion that the family was resident in East St. Louis. Before the age of eighteen Josephine had been married twice, first to Willie Wells and then to William Baker, to whom she was married in Camden, New Jersey, in September 1921....

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Barnabee, Henry Clay (14 November 1833–16 December 1917), singer and actor, was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the son of Willis Barnabee and Mary (maiden name unknown). His father was a stagecoach driver who became an innkeeper. Willis Barnabee’s wife was cook, and his adolescent son Henry was odd-jobs man and at times bartender....

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Nora Bayes With her children aboard the S.S. Leviathan, 1924. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-111460 ).

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Bayes, Nora (29 November 1880–19 March 1928), singer and comedienne, was born Theodora Goldberg in Joliet, Illinois, the daughter of Elias Goldberg, a merchant, and Rachel Miller. The product of local public schools, which she left to enter vaudeville, the young Dora Goldberg was largely self-taught musically. She had already made her debut at the Hopkins Theatre in Chicago and had become “Nora Bayes” when, at eighteen, she received her first acclaim at the Hyde and Behman vaudeville theater in Chicago, singing comic songs in dialect while impersonating Yiddish and Irish stereotypical characters then fashionable in vaudeville....

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Bentley, Gladys (12 Aug. 1907–18 Jan. 1960), African American pianist, blues singer, and nightclub entertainer, was born Gladys Alberta Bentley in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the oldest of four children of George L. Bentley and Mary Mote Bentley. Her father was born in the United States, and her mother immigrated from Trinidad. Raised in a working-class family in Philadelphia, Bentley had a difficult childhood, and she often felt like an outcast. In an autobiographical essay for ...

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Berberian, Cathy (04 July 1925–06 March 1983), singer, was born Catherine Berberian in Attleboro, Massachusetts, to parents of Armenian descent. She learned Armenian songs and dances as a child and reportedly developed an ear for vocal music from listening to classical singers on recordings and on the radio. The soprano ...

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Berry, Chuck (18 Oct. 1926–18 Mar. 2017), singer, songwriter, guitarist, and one of the founders of rock and roll music, was born Charles Edward Anderson Berry in St. Louis, Missouri, to Henry Berry, a contractor and a deacon in the Antioch Baptist Church, St. Louis, and Martha (Bell) Berry, a teacher. Berry, his parents, and his five siblings lived in The Ville, a black middle-class neighborhood in segregated St. Louis, where he attended Simmons Elementary School and Sumner High School, dropping out of Sumner in his junior year, ...

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Bishop, Anna Rivière (09 January 1810–18 March 1884), soprano, was born in London, England, the daughter of Daniel Valentine Rivière and Henrietta Thunder. Her father, who had emigrated from France to England, was a drawing master and an amateur flutist. Bishop’s musical talents were evident at an early age, and she studied with her mother before being selected as a foundation student at the Royal Academy of Music in early 1824. There she studied piano with Ignaz Moscheles. In the mid-1820s she abandoned study of the piano in favor of voice, which she studied under Henry Rowley Bishop, then one of the most popular English composers. Anna sang at a students’ concert at St. James’s Palace in 1828, in the presence of the king. Her public debut, with the Concerts of Antient Music, was at the New Rooms, Hanover Square, on 20 April 1831. She left the Royal Academy the same year, apparently without receiving a degree. In July 1831 she married Bishop, barely a month after the death of his first wife. The couple had three children....

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David Bispham Photograph by Arnold Genthe, 1909. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-G399-1869).