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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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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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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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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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Estes, Sleepy John (25 January 1904?–05 June 1977), blues singer and songwriter, was born John Adams Estes in Ripley, Tennessee, about fifty miles northeast of Memphis, the son of Daniel Estes, a sharecropper, and Millie Thornton. His family, which eventually grew to include sixteen children, moved several times, finally settling in Brownsville, Tennessee, around 1915. At age six, Estes lost the sight in his right eye when he was hit by a stone. His earliest musical influences were his father, who played guitar, and an older brother, who played banjo. After he made himself a one-string instrument from a cigar box, Estes recalled in later years, his parents decided that he had an inborn talent and was destined to become a musician, so they bought him a guitar. He claimed he was singing by age twelve and two years later was playing house parties, suppers, cotton pickings, and other recreations, picking up pointers from such musicians as “Hambone” Willie Newbern, a blues singer and guitarist (possibly related to Estes). At a house party around 1919 Estes met an eleven-year-old guitar and mandolin player, Yank Rachell. Rachell, a Brownsville native who also had played with Newbern, became Estes’s close friend and partner, the two of them playing at house parties in Brownsville, Ripley, and Jackson....

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Gaye, Marvin (02 April 1939–01 April 1984), singer and songwriter, was born Marvin Pentz Gay, Jr., in Washington, D.C., the son of Marvin Pentz Gay, Sr., a Pentecostal minister, and Alberta (maiden name unknown), a domestic worker. The junior Gaye grew up in Washington, where he began his musical career by singing and playing organ in the choir at his father’s church. At Cardoza High School in Washington, Gaye played piano in a doo-wop group called the D.C. Tones. He dropped out after eleventh grade and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. After a year of openly rebelling against his commanding officers and feigning mental illness, Gaye was discharged in 1957 for inability to serve....

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William Christopher Handy Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1941. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-42531).

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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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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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Johnson, Robert (08 May 1911–16 August 1938), musician, was born Robert Leroy Johnson in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, the son of Noah Johnson and Julia Major Dodds (occupations unknown). His mother was married at the time to another man, Charles Dodds, Jr., who, because of an acquaintance’s personal vendetta against him, had been forced to flee Mississippi for Memphis in 1907, changing his name to Charles Spencer. After his mother eked out a living for two years working in migrant labor camps supporting Robert and his sister Carrie, she and her children joined Spencer, his mistress, and their children in Memphis in 1914. Eventually Julia left her children. Around 1918 Robert, an unruly, strong-willed child, also left Memphis, joining his mother and new stepfather, Willie “Dusty” Willis, in Robinsonville, Mississippi. Although Robert went to the Indian Lake School at Commerce, Mississippi, through the mid-1920s, eyesight problems both plagued him and provided him with an excuse to quit school. Johnson’s favored instruments of his early teen years, Jew’s harp and harmonica, were supplanted around 1929 by an interest in what became his primary instrument, the guitar, though he continued to play harmonica in a neck rack....

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Bill McCulloch and Barry Lee Pearson

Lenoir, J. B. (05 March 1929–29 April 1967), blues singer and songwriter, was born near Monticello, Lawrence County, Mississippi, the son of Dewitt Lenoir and Roberta Ratliff, farmers. He grew up in a musical family, in which both parents played guitar. He was particularly inspired by his father’s blues singing and later claimed that he could play his first song, “Jim Jackson’s Kansas City Blues,” before he was big enough to sit in a chair and hold the guitar. His father quit blues after dreaming that he was chased by the devil, but J. B. carried on the family musical tradition, sharpening his performance skills at house parties and picnics. Although he recalled few local influences besides his father, he was clearly influenced by the style of Mississippi-born ...

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Bill McCulloch and Barry Lee Pearson

Lipscomb, Mance (09 April 1895–30 January 1976), songster and guitarist, was born on a farm near Navasota, Texas, the son of Charlie Lipscomb, a former slave who became a professional fiddler, and Janie Pratt. Mance learned to play fiddle and guitar at an early age, learning mainly by ear because his musician father was seldom home to teach him. While still a preteen, Mance supposedly traveled with his father for a time, accompanying him on guitar. However, when Mance was around eleven years old, his father stopped coming home altogether, and the youngster went to work on the farm to help his mother....

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McDowell, Mississippi Fred (12 January 1904–03 July 1972), blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist, was born Fred McDowell in Rossville, Tennessee, the son of Jimmy McDowell and Ida Cureay, farmers. Little is known of his early life, primarily because of his own conflicting accounts. His earliest recollections, aside from those of farm life, focused on weekend parties and the guitar playing of his uncle and main inspiration, Gene Shields, who also may have helped raise young Fred after the death of his father. In a 1969 interview, McDowell recalled: “I was a little-bitty boy. My uncle, he played with a beef bone that come out of a steak. He reamed it out, took a file and smoothed it and wore it on this [little] finger here … I said if I ever get grown I’m gonna learn to play a guitar. Boy it sound so good to me.”...

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Redding, Otis (09 September 1941–10 December 1967), singer and songwriter, was born Otis Redding, Jr., in Dawson, Georgia, the son of Otis Redding, Sr., a maintenance worker and minister, and Fanny (maiden name unknown). In 1944, when the younger Redding was three, the family moved into the Tindall Heights Housing Project in Macon, Georgia. Redding began playing drums and piano in elementary school and sang in his church gospel choir. He was forced to drop out of high school in the tenth grade when his father contracted tuberculosis and lost his job at the local air force base. Redding then worked as a well digger and a gas station attendant and also earned money as a musician with the Upsetters, a rhythm-and-blues band led by the singer and piano player Little Richard. Redding gained fame as an R&B singer in the Macon area when he won several local talent show contests. By 1958 he was prominent in the Macon music scene as the singer for a rhythm-and-blues band called the Pinetoppers....

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Scott-Heron, Gilbert (1 April 1949–27 May 2011), poet, songwriter, singer, and pianist, was born in Chicago, the son of Gilbert Saint Elmo Heron, a Jamaican-born soccer player, and Robert Jamison Scott, a librarian. (His mother Bobbie Scott was named Robert, after her father, despite the gender implications.) His parents’ relationship was contentious and soon disintegrated. His father returned to his own family in Detroit in ...

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Spivey, Queen Victoria (15 October 1906–03 October 1976), classic blues singer and songwriter, (on at least one recording known as Jane Lucas), was born Victoria Regina Spivey in Houston, Texas, the daughter of Grant Spivey, a straw boss on Texas wharfs and a string player, and Addie Smith, a nurse. She was one of eight children in a musical family. Her father and brothers were members of a local string band, and her three sisters, Addie “Sweet Peas,” Elton “Za Zu,” and Leona, also were singers. Spivey began playing piano at an early age and soon was performing with various local groups (including Henry “Lazy Daddy” Filmore’s Blues-Jazz Band and L. C. Tolen’s Band and Revue). There followed appearances in vaudeville houses and theaters throughout Texas, Missouri, and Michigan. As a teenager she worked at the Lincoln Theater (playing piano for silent movies) in Houston, Texas....

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Waller, Fats (21 May 1904–15 December 1943), jazz and popular pianist, singer, and songwriter, was born Thomas Wright Waller in New York City, the son of Edward Martin Waller, a Baptist preacher, and Adeline Lockett. From age six Waller was devoted to the piano but initially failed to practice properly or learn to read music well, because he could memorize lessons immediately. In his youth he also played reed organ in church. He studied piano, string bass, and violin at P.S. 89, which he attended to about age fourteen or fifteen. Although his girth had earned him a nickname by this time, the names Thomas and Fats appeared interchangeably (and sometimes together, as Thomas “Fats” Waller) in his professional work until at least 1931. Later in his career, and posthumously, the nickname prevailed....