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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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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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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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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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Carroll, Earl (16 September 1893–17 June 1948), theatrical producer and songwriter, was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the son of James Carroll and Elizabeth Wills, hotelkeepers. At thirteen, Carroll became a program boy at a Pittsburgh theater. At seventeen, having graduated from Allegheny High School, he was assistant treasurer and box-office manager at another theater. He worked his passage around the world doing odd jobs, wrote for an English-language newspaper in the Orient, and, after visiting New York, became treasurer at Pittsburgh’s Nixon Theater....

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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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Cooke, Sam (22 January 1931–11 December 1964), singer-songwriter, was born Samuel Cook in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the son of Charles Cook, a minister in the Church of Christ (Holiness), and Annie May Carl. After Sam’s father lost his position as houseboy for a wealthy cotton farmer as a result of the Great Depression, the family migrated to Chicago, where Reverend Cook became assistant pastor of Christ Temple (Holiness) and a laborer in the stockyards. The family lived in Bronzeville, Chicago’s severely overcrowded and impoverished black section. Young Sam was educated at nearby schools and gained musical experience by sneaking into taverns to hear pop tunes but mostly by hearing and singing gospel music at church. There he started a gospel group, the Singing Children; later he joined the Teenage Highway QC’s and became more widely known throughout the nation. He graduated from Wendell Phillips High School in 1948. About that time he spent ninety days in jail on a morals charge that stemmed from a paternity suit....

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Evans, Dale (31 October 1912–07 February 2001), actor and singer-songwriter, actor and singer‐songwriter, was born Lucille Wood Smith in Uvalde, Texas, the daughter of Walter Hillman Smith, a cotton farmer and hardware dealer, and Bettie Sue Wood. At an early age her name was changed to Frances Octavia Smith. During her childhood the family moved to Osceola, Arkansas, where Frances attended local schools and enjoyed singing with church and social groups. She was bright, skipped several grades, and entered high school at the age of twelve. Two years later, to her parents' dismay, she eloped with her boyfriend, Thomas F. Fox, and gave birth to their son the following year. Soon afterward Fox deserted the family, leaving Frances to raise the child on her own; the couple divorced in 1929 when Frances was seventeen....

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Foster, Stephen (04 July 1826–13 January 1864), songwriter, was born Stephen Collins Foster in Lawrenceville (now part of Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania, the son of William Barclay Foster and Eliza Clayland Tomlinson. His father, of Scots-Irish ancestry, had an early career as a merchant and trader. He owned, named, and subdivided the hillside town of Lawrenceville overlooking the Allegheny River; dedicated some of its land as a burial ground and memorial for the soldiers of the War of 1812; and with his own funds helped equip Colonel ...

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Gershwin, Ira (06 December 1896–15 August 1983), song lyricist, was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Morris Gershvin (written Gershwine; originally Gershovitz), a leather worker, later a businessman, and Rose Bruskin. His childhood was spent mostly on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Although his father’s business ventures were often unsuccessful, the Gershwins were of comfortable means compared with many of their Russian-Jewish immigrant peers....

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Guthrie, Woody (14 July 1912–03 October 1967), singer and songwriter, was born Woodrow Wilson Guthrie in Okemah, Oklahoma, the son of Charles Guthrie, a cattle rancher and real estate salesman, and Nora Belle Sherman, a schoolteacher. Guthrie’s roots were in the soil of the American frontier. His maternal grandfather had been a dirt farmer in Kansas who settled in Oklahoma at the end of the nineteenth century, and his father’s family had been cowboys in the territory. Woody Guthrie’s childhood was uneventful until he reached the age of seven, when he experienced a series of family tragedies that set the tone for his adult life as a loner, a wanderer, and, at the same time, a man who spoke for America’s “little people.” His sister was burned to death in a fire that his mother was suspected of setting, his father’s business ventures failed, and the family lost a total of three homes. When his father was also injured in a suspected arson fire, his mother was institutionalized. She had begun to show signs of Huntington’s chorea, the degenerative and hereditary disease of the central nervous system that would eventually kill her son....

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Hall, Wendall (23 August 1896–02 April 1969), singer, composer, music publisher, and advertising executive, was born Wendall Woods Hall in St. George, Kansas, the son of Rev. George Franklin Hall and Laura Woods Hall. (His mother's lineage can be traced back to Mayflower...

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Hamlisch, Marvin Frederick (02 June 1944–06 August 2012), composer, songwriter, and conductor, was born in New York City, the son of Lilly Schachter and Max Hamlisch, a musician. His Austrian Jewish parents had very narrowly escaped the Nazis, reluctantly leaving Vienna and arriving in America in 1937, poor and hampered by their inability to speak English fluently. By the age of three, his father recognized the small boy’s musical gifts, and at the age of six, Marvin was enrolled in the Preparatory Division at the Juilliard School of Music in Manhattan, where he was the youngest student ever accepted. He possessed perfect pitch and the ability to re-create on the piano, in any key, any music he heard. As a scholarship student, each year brought dreaded recitals and the audition to retain the scholarship, which he compared to facing a firing squad. By the age of ten, the decidedly anxious prodigy was swallowing Maalox and chewing antacids for what would eventually become a well-earned bleeding ulcer. Already young Marvin had realized, definitively, that he would not become an acclaimed classical pianist. Instead, thrilled by such diverse musicals as ...

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Handy, W. C. (16 November 1873–28 March 1958), blues musician and composer, was born William Christopher Handy in Florence, Alabama, the son of Charles Bernard Handy, a minister, and Elizabeth Brewer. Handy was raised in an intellectual, middle-class atmosphere, as befitted a minister’s son. He studied music in public school, then attended the all-black Teachers’ Agricultural and Mechanical College in Huntsville. After graduation he worked as a teacher and, briefly, in an iron mill. A love of the cornet led to semiprofessional work as a musician, and by the early 1890s he was performing with a traveling minstrel troupe known as Mahara’s Minstrels; by mid-decade, he was promoted to bandleader of the group. Handy married Elizabeth Virginia Price in 1898. They had five children....

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Helms, Bobby (15 August 1936–19 June 1997), singer and songwriter, was born Robert Lee Helms in Bloomington, Indiana, the son of Fred R. Helms and Hildreth “Helen” Adams Helms. At an early age he showed a talent for music, and by the mid-1940s he and his older brother Freddy were singing as a duo called the Smiling Boys on WTTS, a local radio station. Their father founded a weekend stage show, “The Monroe County Jamboree,” to showcase his sons, and in 1949 they were featured on “The Happy Valley Show” on WTTV, Channel 4, in Indianapolis. The next year they became regulars on that station's “Hayloft Frolics.” When his brother left the act in 1953, “Bouncing” Bobby Helms, as he was known, went solo and joined the Bob Hardy Country Show. The show toured the tri-state area of Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio, where Helms developed a big following. He married Esther Marie Hendrickson in 1953, and in 1955 he recorded four original songs for Speed Records....

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Johnson, James P. (01 February 1894–17 November 1955), jazz and popular pianist, composer, and songwriter, was born James Price Johnson in New Brunswick, New Jersey, the son of William H. Johnson, a store helper and mechanic, and Josephine Harrison, a maid. Johnson’s mother sang in the Methodist church choir and was a self-taught pianist. He later cited popular songs and African-American ring-shout dances at home and local brass bands in the streets as early influences. When his mother’s piano was sold to help pay for their move to Jersey City in 1902, Johnson turned to singing, dancing, and playing the guitar but played piano whenever possible. In 1908 the family moved to Manhattan, at which point he enrolled at P.S. 69, and in 1911 the family moved uptown....

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Maxwell, Elsa (24 May 1883–01 November 1963), international hostess, songwriter, and newspaper columnist, was born in a theater box during a touring company’s performance of Mignon in Keokuk, Iowa, the daughter of James David Maxwell, an insurance salesman and part-time journalist, and Laura Wyman. Her childhood was spent in a modest flat situated among the elegant homes on San Francisco’s Nob Hill. A disappointment there at age twelve may have influenced her later party giving. A neighbor, the wealthy senator ...

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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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Newley, Anthony (24 September 1931–14 April 1999), singer and songwriter, was born in the East End of London, the son of Frances Grace Newley, a single mother. It has been reported that Newley's father was a local building contractor who made himself known late in Newley's life, but his name has not been recorded. Educated mainly locally, Newley, like many London children during World War II, was evacuated to the countryside. A sojourn with a music hall performer introduced him to theater, and at age fourteen, while working as a tea boy for an advertising agency, he entered London's Italia Conti stage school....

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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....