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Irving Berlin. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-108544).

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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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Bond, Carrie Jacobs (11 August 1861–28 December 1946), songwriter and music publisher, was born Carrie Minetta Jacobs in Janesville, Wisconsin, the daughter of Hannibal Cyrus Jacobs, a grain dealer and amateur flutist, and Mary Emogene Davis. By the age of four she was playing the piano by ear and then began to study with local teachers. In 1880 she married E. J. Smith and bore one son, Frederic Bond Smith, but the couple separated in 1887 and later divorced. In 1889 she married Dr. Frank Lewis Bond, a physician who encouraged her to compose. An economic downturn curtailed his practice, so she traveled to Chicago to try to sell her songs to publishers. On being told that only children’s songs would sell, she immediately wrote one, “Is My Dolly Dead?” which became her first published work (1894)....

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Bradford, Perry (14 February 1895–20 April 1970), blues and vaudeville songwriter, publisher, and musical director, was born John Henry Perry Bradford in Montgomery, Alabama, the son of Adam Bradford, a bricklayer and tile setter, and Bella (maiden name unknown), a cook. Standard reference books give his year of birth as 1893, but Bradford’s autobiography gives 1895. Early in his youth Bradford learned to play piano by ear. In 1901 the family moved to Atlanta, where his mother cooked meals for prisoners in the adjacent Fulton Street jail. There he was exposed to the inmates’ blues and folk singing. He attended Molly Pope School through the sixth grade and claimed to have attended Atlanta University for three years (there being no local high school). This is chronologically inconsistent, however, with his claim to have joined Allen’s New Orleans Minstrels in the fall of 1907, traveling to New Orleans for Mardi Gras performances in February 1908 and then moving on to Oklahoma....

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Donaldson, Walter (15 February 1893–15 July 1947), popular-song composer, lyricist, and publisher, was born in Brooklyn, New York. The names of his parents are not known. Although his mother was a music teacher, Donaldson seems never to have taken music lessons; instead, he learned to play the piano by ear. While still in high school, he began writing songs, and after graduation he found employment on Wall Street, but he soon gave that up in favor of popular music. For a time he worked as a Tin Pan Alley song plugger at $15 a week; however, his addiction to writing his own songs during working hours cost him his job. His first song to make a public impression was “Just Try to Picture Me Down Home in Tennessee” (1915; lyrics by William Jerome), about a state he had never seen. World War I found him in the Entertainment Division of the U.S. Army, where he met ...

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Dorsey, Thomas Andrew (01 July 1899–23 January 1993), blues performer, gospel singer, and composer, was born in Villa Rica, Georgia, the son of Thomas Madison Dorsey, a preacher, and Etta Plant Spencer. Dorsey’s mother, whose first husband had died, owned approximately fifty acres of farm land. Dorsey lived in somewhat trying circumstances as his parents moved first to Atlanta and Forsyth, Georgia, and then back to Villa Rica during the first four years of his life. In Villa Rica the Dorsey family settled into a rural lifestyle supported by marginal farming that was slightly mitigated by his father’s pastoral duties....

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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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Feather, Leonard (13 September 1914–22 September 1994), jazz writer and jazz and blues promoter, producer, and songwriter, was born Leonard Geoffrey Feather in London, England, the son of Nathan Feather, the owner of a chain of clothing stores, and Felicia Zelinski. Feather described his upbringing thus: “In these upper-middle-class Jewish circles conformity was expected in every area of life.” He studied classical piano and clarinet while teaching himself to play pop songs on piano. At age fifteen, deeply moved by trumpeter ...

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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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Fowler, Wally (15 February 1917–03 June 1994), gospel music promoter, singer, and songwriter, was born John Wallace Fowler near Cartersville, Georgia, the son of Joseph Fletcher Fowler, a well-established cotton farmer; his mother’s name is not known. By the time Wally Fowler was ready for school, the Great Depression had wrecked his father’s fortunes, and he and his sisters grew up working as sharecroppers. The Fowler family, however, loved music; his mother played an old pump organ, and his father helped organize Saturday night gospel singings in the front rooms of neighborhood houses. “That’s when I really learned gospel music,” he recalled. What formal training the singers got came from J. M. Henson, an Atlanta publisher and singing school teacher, who came to the area to conduct singing schools, using the seven-shape note system that was popular throughout the South at that time....

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Harris, Charles Kassell (1 May 1865 or 1867–22 December 1930), songwriter and publisher, was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, the son of Jacob Harris, a tailor, and Rachel Kassell. Harris’s date of birth is uncertain; his obituary in the New York Times gives the 1865 date, whereas the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), of which he was a charter member, lists it as 1867. The synagogue records for the period of his birth have been lost, and birth records for Dutchess County begin in 1882. Little is known about Harris’s youth. During his childhood the family moved to East Saginaw, Michigan, and then to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His father supported the family of ten children with income from a general store and tailor shop and by purchasing skins from the Indians....

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Pastor, Tony (28 May 1832–26 August 1908), variety performer and impresario, was born Antonio Pastori in New York City, the son of Antonio Pastori, a theater violinist who also ran a fruit store and barber shop, and his wife (name unknown), who ran a perfumery and, for ten years after her husband’s death, a saloon. Pastor attended New York public schools, but by age eleven he was singing for a temperance group. At thirteen he was a blackface minstrel. In 1846 his father hoped to stop his career by sending him to live on a farm, but by the year’s end he was an “infant prodigy” at Barnum’s Museum in New York. Apprenticed to a circus, Pastor learned tumbling, riding, and mimicry; he became a clown and developed a “rube” act. From 1851 till its collapse in 1853 he was the Nathans-Sands Circus’s ringmaster....

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Rose, Billy (06 September 1899–10 February 1966), songwriter, show business impresario, and philanthropist, was born on the Lower East Side of New York City, the son of David Rosenberg, a button salesman, and Fannie Wernick. He was born William Samuel Rosenberg, according to most biographical sources, though one source states he adopted that name in school after being born Samuel Wolf Rosenberg. He grew up in the Bronx and attended public schools there, winning junior high school medals for sprinting and English. Medals and honors were important as proofs of stature and worth to Rose, who never grew taller than five feet three inches. In the High School of Commerce, he became an outstanding student of the Gregg system of shorthand, winning first a citywide competition (1917) and then a national competition (1918). In 1918 he left high school shortly before graduation to become head of the stenographic department of the War Industries Board, headed by ...

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Rose, Fred (24 August 1897–01 December 1954), music publisher, songwriter, and pianist, was born Knols Fred Rose in Evansville, Indiana, the son of Andrew Rose and Annie West. Little is known about either parent. His childhood in St. Louis, Missouri, was Dickensian in its poverty and insecurity; when he was as young as seven, he was singing for change in various saloons and being shuttled about to various relatives. It was little wonder that he left St. Louis when he was around fifteen, hopping a freight train to Chicago, where he established a base of operations for the following fifteen years. His first marketable skill was as a pianist, and he joined jazz great ...

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See Stamps, V. O.

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Stamps, V. O. (18 September 1892–19 August 1940), and Frank Henry Stamps (07 October 1896–12 February 1965), composers, singers, and music promoters, were born in Simpsonville, Upshur County, Texas, the sons of W. O. Stamps and Florence Corine Rosser, community leaders from Upshur County, where W. O. Stamps ran several sawmills and founded the community of Stamps. He later served two terms in the Texas legislature and for a time acted as head of the Texas prison system. Both V. O., born Virgil Oliver Stamps, and Frank Stamps, two of six brothers, were introduced to gospel music when their father hired a music teacher to conduct singing schools in the community. V. O. was fourteen at the time; Frank, six. Both brothers soon found they had an aptitude for the seven-shape note music taught in the school, a type of music that was widely popular in Texas at the time....

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Thompson, Will Lamartine (07 November 1847–20 September 1909), composer and publisher, was born in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, the son of Josiah Thompson and Sarah Jackman. His father was self-educated and worked for a time as a clerk on the wharf in Pittsburgh. He became a successful merchant and, about the time of Will’s birth, moved to East Liverpool, Ohio, where he established the mercantile firm of J. Thompson and Company. Three of his sons, including Will, were to be partners in the firm, and Will also served on the board of directors of the East Liverpool Bank, which his father established in 1873. The Thompson family was highly regarded in the East Liverpool area, and Josiah Thompson was elected to the fifty-eighth (1868), fifty-ninth (1870), and sixtieth (1872) sessions of the Ohio legislature....

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Vaughan, James David (14 December 1864–09 February 1941), music publisher and composer, was born in rural Giles County, Tennessee, the son of George Washington Vaughan and Mary Eliza (maiden name unknown), farmers. As a child he was exposed to the seven-shape note singing school music, which was popular in that region. While in his teens, he attended local singing schools, and with his three younger brothers, John, Will, and Charles Wesley, formed a gospel quartet—the prototype of what would later prove to be one of Vaughan’s most important innovations. In 1882 he set up his own singing-school at the church where his family worshiped, and shortly thereafter, he began to compose songs with E. T. Hildebrand, one of the owners of the Hildebrand-Burnett Music Company of Roanoke, Virginia. Although he was preparing himself to be a teacher, Vaughan continued to take his family quartet to local singings and to further his own education about music....

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See Von Tilzer, Harry

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Von Tilzer, Harry (08 July 1872–10 January 1946), and Albert Von Tilzer (29 March 1878–01 October 1956), songwriters and music publishers, were born, respectively, Harold Gumm in Detroit, Michigan, and Albert Gumm in Indianapolis, Indiana. The names of their parents are unknown. Their father operated a shoe store in Goshen, Indiana, and later in Indianapolis. Harry left home at the age of fourteen and in Indianapolis joined Cole Brothers Circus, then a theatrical troupe in burlesque in Chicago. He was largely self-taught as a musician. While working in a circus and medicine show in Chicago as a singer, pianist, tumbler, and spieler, he wrote his first published song, “I Love You Both” (1892). He added “Von” to his mother’s maiden name for a professional pseudonym that four of his brothers also adopted....