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Autry, Gene (29 September 1908–02 October 1998), country singer, actor, and baseball team owner, was born Orvon Gene Autry in Tioga, Texas, the son of Delbert Autry, a livestock dealer and tenant farmer, and Elnora Ozmont Autry. He later recalled that his family was poor but “never Tobacco Road poor. My father earned good money, when he felt like it, which was some of the time” (Autry, p. 4). They moved frequently during his childhood, to small farms and hamlets in northern Texas and southern Oklahoma, eventually settling outside Ravia, Oklahoma. His grandfather, a Baptist minister, taught him to sing when he was five years old so he could join the church choir; his musically talented mother taught him how to play a mail-order guitar. As a teenager he sang ballads for tips at cafes, and around 1923 he toured for three months with the Fields Brothers Marvelous Medicine Show. During these years he was reportedly fired from a job as a ranch hand because his singing distracted the other hands from their labor....

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Gene Autry. 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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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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Dale Evans. [left to right] Dale Evans, Roy Rogers, and their horse Trigger, 1958. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection: LC-USZ62-128588).

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Hall, Adelaide (20 October 1901?–07 November 1993), vaudeville, musical theater, and jazz singer and actress, was born in New York City, the daughter of William Hall, a Pennsylvania German music teacher at the Pratt Institute, and Elizabeth Gerrard, an African American. She made many jokes about her birth year; on her birthday in 1991 she declared that she was ninety years old, hence the conjectural 1901....

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Hayes, Isaac Lee, Jr. (20 August 1942–10 August 2008), soul singer, composer, keyboard player, and actor, was born in Covington, Tennessee, the son of Isaac Hayes, Sr. and Eula Wade. In Hayes’s infancy, his father abandoned the family and his mother died in a mental institution. He was raised by his grandparents, William and Rushia Wade, who were sharecroppers....

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Hays, Lee Elhardt (14 March 1914–26 August 1981), songwriter, singer, and political activist, was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, the son of the Reverend William Benjamin Hays, a Methodist minister, and Ellen Reinhardt, a court reporter. The youngest of four children, Lee Hays left home at age fourteen for Emory Junior College Academy in Oxford, Georgia, a Methodist prep school from which he graduated in 1930. He had hoped to take a bachelor’s degree, but during the depression none of his family members could help with tuition....

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Ives, Burl (14 June 1909–14 April 1995), folk singer and actor, was born Burl Icle Ivanhoe Ives in Hunt City Township, Illinois, the son of Frank Ives, a tenant farmer and highway culvert builder, and Cordella White. A bird, singing on an oak branch outside his mother’s window, ushered in Ives’s birth, and his brothers made him a cornstalk fiddle when he was just a toddler, but it was his pipe-smoking grandmother Kate White who made him a singer. She knew hundreds of folksongs and would fix her bright, black-button eyes on him and sing. Ives was age four when, at an old soldiers’ reunion, he first performed in public. Although he had just eaten two hot dogs that he purchased on credit, he sang well, received one dollar, paid his debt, and spent the remainder on merry-go-round rides. At age twelve he sang and played his banjo at a local camp meeting and was asked while still in the sixth grade to be part of a high school theater group that performed in neighboring towns. He spent his junior and senior years in a consolidated high school in nearby Newton and played football as a fullback and as an all-conference guard....

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Burl Ives Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1955. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-10367).

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McDaniel, Hattie (10 June 1895–26 October 1952), film actress and singer, was born in Wichita, Kansas, the daughter of Henry McDaniel, a Baptist minister, and Susan Holbert, and grew up in Denver, Colorado. Former slaves, her parents passed singing abilities along to Hattie and her siblings. During her early education, Hattie’s teachers allowed her to sing spirituals and other songs for her fellow students. In 1910 Hattie recited “Convict Joe” for the Denver Women’s Christian Temperance Union, winning a gold medal and a standing ovation. This success motivated Hattie to join her father and brother Otis—the two had formed a minstrel company—and become a full-time entertainer. She was dubbed by critics and audiences as a “jazz singer.”...

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Nelson, Rick (08 May 1940–31 December 1985), singer and actor, was born Eric Hilliard Nelson in Teaneck, New Jersey, the son of Ozzie Nelson and Harriet Hilliard Nelson (née Peggy Lou Snyder), radio and television stars who did much to define the situation comedy. Nelson made his first professional appearance on radio in 1949 on “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” He played the smart-aleck little brother to David Nelson, and his wisecracks were used as laugh-winning punch lines. Moving with his family to television, Rick used the medium to debut as a rock star in the early days of that musical form (1957), recording a cover version of Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’,” reportedly to impress a girl. The record sold more than 1 million copies in two weeks, highlighting the fact that the white treatment of rhythm and blues, called rock and roll, could sell, particularly if the singer were photogenic and nonthreatening, or at least not black....

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Ritter, Tex (12 January 1905–02 January 1974), singer and actor, was born Woodward Maurice Ritter in Murvaul, Texas, the son of James Everett Ritter, a farmer and cowboy, and Elizabeth Matthews. Ritter attended school in his church, “which was partitioned into two rooms.” When he was fifteen, the family of eight resettled in Nederland, southwest of Beaumont and Port Arthur. After the harvest, he attended “singing schools” conducted by itinerant teachers, one of whom was ...

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Rogers, Roy (05 November 1911–06 July 1998), country singer and actor, was born Leonard Frank Sly in Cincinnati, Ohio, the son of Andrew Sly, a shoe-factory worker, and Mattie Womack Sly, who had become disabled after being stricken by polio. (During the early 1930s he began to use the name Leonard Franklin Slye, although no documentation has been found showing a legal name change.) When Leonard was an infant, his father built a makeshift houseboat on which the family lived on the Ohio River for approximately eight years; they spent much of that time moored near Portsmouth, Ohio. In 1919 they settled on a small farm in Duck Run, Ohio. His father continued to work in Portsmouth and lived away from home for two weeks at a time, so eight-year-old Leonard became responsible for running the farm and hunting with a slingshot in order to feed his mother and three sisters. He later recalled that “for the Slye family, about the most fun we could have together was singing. My whole family was musical. Pop played mandolin and mother played guitar, and my sisters and I all joined in” (Rogers and Evans, p. 25). He and his mother were also accomplished yodelers, using yodels as a form of communication: for example, when his mother wanted to call him in from the fields for dinner, she would use one type of yodel, and if a storm was approaching he would use another yodel as a warning. He learned to play mandolin as a boy and became skilled at calling square dances. Although his ambition was to become a dentist, he was forced to drop out of high school after two years because of financial difficulties. His family then moved back to Cincinnati, where he took a factory job at the U.S. Shoe Company alongside his father....

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Roy Rogers. [left to right] Dale Evans, Roy Rogers, and their horse Trigger, 1958. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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Smith, Mamie (26 May 1883–30 October 1946?), blues and vaudeville singer and film actress, was born Mamie Robinson in Cincinnati, Ohio. Nothing is known of her parents. At the age of ten she toured with a white act, the Four Dancing Mitchells. She danced in J. Homer Tutt and Salem Tutt-Whitney’s The Smart Set Company in 1912 and then left the tour the next year to sing in Harlem clubs and theaters. Around this time she married William “Smitty” Smith, a singing waiter who died in 1928. At the Lincoln Theater in 1918 she starred in ...

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Wakely, Jimmy (16 February 1914–23 September 1982), cowboy singer, composer, and film star, was born James Clarence Wakely near Mineola, Arkansas, into a poor farming family. His parents’ names are unknown. Showing musical skills on the guitar and piano, Wakely was influenced by the neowestern music of ...

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Ethel Waters Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1938. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-92011).

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Waters, Ethel (31 October 1896–01 September 1977), blues singer and actress, was born in Chester, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Louisa Tar Anderson and John Wesley Waters. Her birth resulted from the rape of her mother. Young Ethel was raised in poor neighborhoods in and around Philadelphia by her mother and grandmother, who worked as a laundress. Members of her family were amateur singers, and at the age of five, using the name Baby Star, Waters sang in public at a children’s performance in a Philadelphia church....