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Churchill, Frank Edwin (20 October 1901–14 May 1942), composer, was born in Rumford, Maine. His parents’ names are unknown. When he was four his family moved to southern California, where he remained all his life. Churchill was a born musician, largely self-taught. While studying for a medical career at the University of California at Los Angeles, he spent hours at the piano. He dropped out of college to take a job playing honky-tonk piano in Tijuana. Following that he played in a theater orchestra accompanying silent films. His skill landed him a job as a staff pianist at KNX radio in Los Angeles from 1924 to 1929. In December 1930 Churchill accepted an offer to join the stable of composers at the Walt Disney Studios, where he wrote music for the first time. By then Churchill had given up thoughts of becoming a doctor and turned to a career of composing music....

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Crawford-Seeger, Ruth Porter (03 July 1901–18 November 1953), composer, teacher, and scholar of American folk music, was born in East Liverpool, Ohio, the daughter of Clark Crawford, a Methodist minister, and Clara Alletta Graves. Her father moved the family to Jacksonville, Florida, in 1911. After his death in 1914, the family supported itself by running a rooming house. Crawford-Seeger began piano study in Jacksonville with her mother and later studied at the city’s School of Musical Art. In 1920 she enrolled at the American Conservatory in Chicago, where she studied piano with Heniot Levy and Louise Robyn, and theory and composition with John Palmer and Adolf Weidig. After a year at the conservatory, she earned a teaching certificate and continued her composition studies with Weidig, earning a master’s degree in 1929. During this period, Crawford-Seeger continued her piano study with Djane Lavoie-Herz and became a member of the faculty at both the conservatory and Elmhurst College of Music near Chicago. The children of poet ...

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Dreyfus, Max (01 April 1874–12 May 1964), music publisher, songwriter, and arranger, was born in Kuppenheim, near Baden, Germany, the son of Elias Dreyfus and Amelia Esther Hertz, farmers. As a child, he studied piano in Baden. In 1888, at age fourteen, Dreyfus emigrated to the United States hoping to find opportunities as a pianist and a composer. He had little luck, so he began to take jobs as a music arranger and worked for several songwriters, including ...

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Duke, John Woods (30 July 1899–25 October 1984), composer and pianist, was born in Cumberland, Maryland, the son of Harry K. Duke, a businessman, and Matilda Hoffman, a singer. Duke began formal piano study at eleven and at sixteen won a scholarship to the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. He remained there for three years, studying piano with Harold Randolph and composition with Gustav Strube, both of whom had been trained in the German Romantic tradition. In 1918 Duke volunteered for military service and was stationed at Columbia University with the Students’ Army Training Corps. When World War I ended, he stayed in New York City to study piano with Franklin Cannon, a pupil of Theodor Leschetizky, and composition under Harold Brockway and Bernard Wagenaar. Both of these composers had a strong vocal orientation, which Duke absorbed and developed....

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Duke, Vernon (10 October 1903–16 January 1969), Russian-American composer, was born Vladimir Alexandrovich Dukelsky in Parafianovo, Russia, the son of Alexander Dukelsky, a civil engineer, and Anna Kopyloff. He was born in the Parafianovo train station while his mother was traveling, but his parents lived in St. Petersburg. The family was musical, and his mother was soon giving him piano lessons, which led to his first attempts at composition. In late 1912 the family went to Kiev, where his father died....

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Fisher, William Arms (27 April 1861–18 December 1948), composer and music editor and publisher, was born in San Francisco, California, the son of Luther Paine Fisher and Katharine Bruyn Arms, both from families whose ancestry dated back to colonial Massachusetts. For more than fifty years, Luther Fisher was the owner of an advertising agency. William attended school in nearby Oakland and studied music with John P. Morgan. In 1890 Fisher moved to New York City and began studies in harmony with composer ...

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Foote, Arthur William (05 March 1853–08 April 1937), composer, was born in Salem, Massachusetts, the sixth child and youngest son of Caleb Foote, the editor of the Salem Gazette, and Mary Wilder White. His mother died four years after his birth, and he was reared by his older sister, Mary White Foote Tileston. His only other surviving sibling, his brother, Henry Wilder Foote, was a long-time minister of King’s Chapel, Boston....

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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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Marvin Frederick Hamlisch. Oil on canvas, 2013, by Richard Stone. © Richard Stone. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Sir Howard and Lady Jennifer Stringer.

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Harline, Leigh (26 March 1907–10 December 1969), composer and songwriter, was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, the son of Carl Harline, a farmer and cobbler, and Matilda Johanna Petersen, a rugmaker. Harline was raised and educated in Salt Lake, majoring in music at the University of Utah. He studied piano and organ with J. Spencer Cornwall, conductor of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. At the age of twenty-one Harline moved to California and worked in both Los Angeles and San Francisco composing music for radio stations in those cities. He often doubled as announcer and singer. In 1933 Harline went to work for ...

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James P. Johnson © William P. Gottlieb; used by permission. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress (LC-GLB13-0458 DLC).

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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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Kern, Jerome (27 January 1885–11 November 1945), composer, was born Jerome David Kern in New York City, the son of Henry Kern, a merchant, and Fannie Kakeles, both from immigrant German Jewish families. The family moved to Newark in 1897, and, after graduating from Thirteenth Avenue School in 1899, Kern entered Newark High School, where his early attempts at composition were performed. Anxious to become a songwriter, in 1902 he gained an introduction to the publisher Edward B. Marks, who gave him a job making out bills and invoices and also issued Kern’s first published compositions. Under his mother’s guidance, he had become a highly proficient pianist, and in 1902–1903 he studied harmony, theory, and composition at the New York College of Music. He apparently also studied music theory and composition briefly near Heidelberg. Around 1903–1904 Kern came into an inheritance and sought to buy a junior partnership in Marks’s firm but was refused. In 1904, therefore, Kern joined the firm of T. B. Harms, which remained his publisher for the rest of his career....

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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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Niles, John Jacob (28 April 1892–01 March 1980), balladeer and composer, was born in Louisville, Kentucky, the son of John Thomas Niles and Louise Sarah Reisch. Through oral tradition, John Jacob learned “old timey” music from his father, a folksinger and square dance caller. From his mother, a pianist and church organist, he gained the more formal elements of theory and note-reading skills. When Niles was twelve, his family moved to rural Jefferson County, Kentucky, where Niles began collecting folk music under his mother’s tutelage. By 1907 Niles had composed his first important song, “Go ’Way from My Window,” based on a single line of text collected from an African-American worker on his father’s farm....

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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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Romberg, Sigmund (29 July 1887–09 November 1951), composer, was born in Nagykanizsa, on the Hungarian-Yugoslavian border, the son of Adam Romberg, an affluent sawmill manager and amateur musician, and Clara Fells, a poet and short story writer who used the pen name Clara Berg. In 1888 the family moved to the small village of Belisce on the Drava River. Romberg grew up in a musical household, and as a child he was captivated by Johann Strauss’s waltzes. At age six he began violin lessons and two years later started studying the piano as well. He was educated at home by private tutors until 1897, when Romberg’s parents enrolled him at the Realschule in the nearby city of Osijek. Romberg joined the school’s sixty-member band directed by Luigi Boggio, who assigned Romberg the C trumpet....

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Ronell, Ann (25 December 1905–25 December 1993), composer and lyricist, was born Ann Rosenblatt in Omaha, Nebraska, the third of four children born to Morris Rosenblatt, a coal dealer, and Mollie Rosenblatt (maiden name unknown). The year of Ronell's birth has appeared variously as 1903, 1906, and 1908; she was also known as Anne and Anna. She was descended from recent immigrants, her father being a Russian émigré who arrived in this country from Czarist Russia in 1890 and settled in Omaha. After graduating from Omaha's Central High School in 1923, she enrolled first at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, and then transferred following her sophomore year to Radcliffe College, where she could receive more intensive musical training. Her teachers at Radcliffe included Edward Ballantine, Archibald Davison, Edward Burlingame Hill, and Walter Spalding, all notable teachers of composition....