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Ace, Johnny (09 June 1929–25 December 1954), musician, songwriter, and rhythm and blues star, was born John Marshall Alexander, Jr., in Memphis, Tennessee, the son of John Marshall Alexander and Leslie Newsome. His father earned his living in Memphis as a packer, but his lifework was as a commuting minister to two rural Baptist churches in East Arkansas. At LaRose Grammar School in south Memphis, John, Jr., as his family called him, displayed both musical and artistic talent. He mastered the piano at home but was allowed to play only religious music there. Along with his mother and siblings, he sang in the choir at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Becoming restless at Booker T. Washington High School, he dropped out in the eleventh grade to join the navy and see the world. His sisters recall military police coming to the house in search of their brother and remember his brief period of enlistment in terms of weeks, ending in an “Undesirable Discharge” in 1947. His mother was furious. “I can’t keep up with you,” she scolded, “and ...

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Armstrong, Lil (03 February 1898–27 August 1971), jazz pianist, composer, and singer, was born Lillian Hardin in Memphis, Tennessee. Nothing is known of her father, but her mother, Dempsey Hardin, was a strict, churchgoing woman who disapproved of blues music. At age six, Lil began playing organ at home, and at eight she started studying piano. In 1914 she enrolled in the music school of Fisk University in Nashville, taking academic courses and studying piano and music theory. After earning her diploma, around 1917 she joined her mother in Chicago, where she found work demonstrating songs in Jones’ Music Store. Prompted by her employer, in 1918 Hardin auditioned for clarinetist Lawrence Duhé’s band at Bill Bottoms’s Dreamland Ballroom, where she played with cornetist “Sugar Johnny” Smith, trombonist Roy Palmer, and other New Orleans musicians. When Smith became too ill to continue working, he was replaced by first ...

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Bond, Johnny (01 June 1915–12 June 1978), songwriter, musician, and writer, was born Cyrus Whitfield Bond in Enville, Oklahoma, the son of Rufus Thomas Bond, a storekeeper and cotton gin operator, and Anna May Camp. While the family had little money, they did own a Victrola player that Bond found fascinating. Inspired by ...

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Brown, James (03 May 1933–25 December 2006), soul singer, dancer, songwriter, and bandleader, was born in Barnwell, South Carolina, the son of Joe Gardner, an itinerant laborer, and Susie Behling. In his first autobiography he explains that his father took the surname Brown from the woman who raised him, and he claims that his own name was James Joe Junior Brown, then James Joe Brown, Jr., and finally, James Brown. But his birth certificate gives Joseph James Brown. He was raised mainly by his father in a physically abusive relationship, and by his father’s aunt Minnie Walker. His mother was present intermittently, apparently driven away by his father’s beatings. This was a pattern that Brown himself would reproduce in countless relationships with women....

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Bryant, Boudleaux (13 February 1920–25 June 1987), songwriter, was born Diadorius Boudleaux Bryant in Shellman, Georgia, the son of Daniel Green Bryant, a lawyer and amateur musician, and Louise Farham. Boudleaux was the name of a man who had saved Daniel Bryant’s life in the First World War. When Bryant was young, his father moved the family to Moultrie, Georgia, where he practiced law. Bryant studied violin under a member of the Boston Symphony who had retired to Moultrie. He moved to Atlanta in 1937 and worked for both the Atlanta Symphony and for local rural string bands, as well as on Works Progress Administration projects....

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Burleigh, Henry Thacker (02 December 1866–12 September 1949), composer and spiritual singer, was born in Erie, Pennsylvania. Nothing is known about his parentage. When he was a little boy his excellent singing voice made him a sought-after performer in churches and synagogues in and around his hometown. In 1892, having decided on a career in music, Burleigh won a scholarship to the National Conservatory of Music in New York. His matriculation coincided with the arrival of the Czech composer ...

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Campbell, Lucie E. (1885–03 January 1963), gospel composer and teacher, was born in Duck Hill, Mississippi, the daughter of Burrell Campbell, a railroad worker, and Isabella Wilkerson. Her mother was widowed several months after Lucie’s birth, and the family soon moved from Carroll County to Memphis, the nearest major city. Lucie and her many siblings struggled to survive on their mother’s meager wages, which she earned by washing and ironing clothing. Given the family’s insubstantial income, it could afford a musical education for only one child: Lucie’s older sister Lora. Lucie eventually learned to play piano, however, through her own persistence, a gifted ear for music, and a little help from Lora....

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Carlisle, Cliff (06 May 1904–05 April 1983), pioneer country musician and songwriter, was born Clifford Raymond Carlisle in Mt. Eden, Kentucky. Many members of his family were musicians, and his younger brother Bill would later join Cliff in the ranks of early professional musicians. Cliff attended several rural grade schools near Wakefield, Kentucky, eventually transferring to larger schools in Louisville, Kentucky, between 1921 and 1924. Unlike many early musicians, he did not serve an apprenticeship in another field before taking up music; from his earliest days he aspired to be a professional musician, and he emerged as one of the first such professionals in the field of country music....

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Carlisle, Una Mae (26 December 1915–07 November 1956), jazz pianist, singer, and composer of popular songs, was born in Zanesville, Ohio, the daughter of Edward E. Carlisle and Mellie (maiden name unknown), a schoolteacher. (The assertion that she was born in Xenia, Ohio, published in many references, does not conform to family records.) With piano training from her mother, she sang and played in public at age three in Chillicothe, Ohio. After participating in musical activities at church and school in Jamestown and Xenia, Ohio, she began performing regularly on radio station WHIO in Dayton while still a youngster. In 1932 she came to the notice of ...

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Carmichael, Hoagy (22 November 1899–28 December 1981), composer, was born Hoagland Howard Carmichael in Bloomington, Indiana, the son of Howard Clyde Carmichael, a horse-and-buggy driver, and Lida Mary Robison. His mother played silent-film accompaniments, and Carmichael began learning to play the piano at age six. Following an undistinguished high school career in Bloomington and Indianapolis and tutoring by Reggie Duval, a ragtime pianist, he worked odd jobs. The slender Carmichael gained enough weight to be accepted into the wartime army—one day before the armistice. After returning to Bloomington in 1919 he played for high school dances....

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Carter, A. P. (15 December 1891–07 November 1960), and Sara Carter (21 July 1898–08 January 1979), musicians and songwriters, were the founding members of the early country music singing group the Carter Family. A. P. Carter was born Alvin Pleasant Delaney Carter near the Appalachian hamlet of Maces Spring, Scott County, Virginia, the son of Robert C. Carter and Mollie Arvelle Bays, both local farmers whose families had been in the region since the late eighteenth century. As a youth, A. P. was exposed to music by both sides of his family. His father had been a well-known local banjo player who later turned to sacred music; his mother’s family included an uncle, Flanders Bays, who taught rural singing schools for area churches; and his mother was a repository of old ballads, both those brought over from Great Britain and newer ones derived from Native American sources. By 1913 A. P. was singing bass in a local church choir and had learned to play both the guitar and fiddle—the latter in a light-bowed, skirling style associated with older Scotch styles. A restless and curious young man, A. P. traveled to Indiana in around 1910–1911, worked on a railroad crew near Richmond, Virginia, for a time, and eventually returned home, suffering from typhoid fever. His schooling consisted of sporadic attendance at local country schools in the Poor Valley. By 1915 he was trying to make a living selling fruit trees to area residents....

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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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Cleveland, James (05 December 1932–09 February 1991), gospel singer, songwriter, and musician was born in Chicago, Illinois, to Ben Cleveland and Rosie Lee during the Great Depression. His father worked on a WPA project while his mother was a day worker. James worked as a paper boy to supplement the family income; he first met ...

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Cobain, Kurt Donald (20 February 1967–05 April 1994), guitarist, singer, and songwriter for the rock band Nirvana, was born in the working-class lumber town of Aberdeen, Washington, the son of Donald Cobain, an auto mechanic, and Wendy Fradenburg Cobain, a waitress. Cobain remembered his early childhood as happy, but his father and mother struggled financially and divorced in 1976, devastating Cobain. By the time he reached high school, Cobain was engaging in petty delinquency and was arrested for vandalism and vagrancy. He began staying with various friends in Aberdeen, including Dale Crover, drummer of “grunge” progenitors the Melvins. He did not finish high school....

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Sam Cooke. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-107994).

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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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Bill McCulloch and Barry Lee Pearson

Crudup, Arthur (24 August 1905–28 March 1974), blues singer and songwriter, was born Arthur Crudup in Forest, Mississippi, between Jackson and Meridian, the son of Minnie Louise Crudup, an unmarried domestic worker. His father was reputed to be a musician, but Crudup recalled seeing him only twice. Raised by his mother and growing up in poverty, Crudup began singing both blues and religious music around age ten. In 1916 he and his mother moved to Indianapolis. After she became ill, Crudup dropped out of school and took a job in a foundry at age thirteen....

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Richard Carlin

Delmore Brothers, country singers, guitarists, and songwriters, were born Alton Delmore (25 Dec. 1908–8 June 1964) and Rabon Delmore (3 Dec. 1916–4 Dec. 1952), in Elkmont, Alabama, the sons of Charlie Delmore and Mary (called “Aunt Mollie,” maiden name unknown). The parents were subsistence farmers. The brothers’ uncle W. A. Williams was a prominent gospel singer and songwriter, and the family encouraged the two youngsters from a young age to attend a local singing school. Mollie, who played the fiddle, also taught her sons to play country fiddle tunes, and as early as 1925 she was writing gospel songs with Alton that were published locally. Alton and Rabon were heavily influenced by the bluesy recordings of white country star ...

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See Delmore Brothers