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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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George M. Cohan Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1933. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LOT 12735, no. 236 P&P).

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Cohan, George M. (3 or 4 July 1878–05 November 1942), performer, writer of songs, musicals, and plays, and producer, was born in Providence, Rhode Island, the son of Jeremiah “Jerry” John Cohan and Helen “Nellie” Frances Costigan. (Cohan’s middle initial stands for Michael.) At the age of seven, Cohan was sent to the E Street School in Providence. His formal schooling lasted six weeks, after which the school sent him to rejoin his parents and sister, Josie, in their theatrical travels. He took violin lessons and played the instrument both in the theater orchestra and in a trick violin act he devised. The Cohans went on their first road show as a family in 1889; when the show failed they went back to ...

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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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Croce, Jim (10 January 1943–20 September 1973), singer and songwriter, was born James Joseph Croce in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of James Croce and Flora (maiden name unknown). Croce grew up in South Philadelphia, the eldest son in a middle-class traditional Italian Catholic family. His initial musical training began at the age of six with accordion lessons. Croce learned to play the guitar at the age of sixteen or eighteen, after he purchased his first twelve-string guitar with money he earned working in a toy store....

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Darin, Bobby (14 May 1936–20 December 1973), singer and songwriter, was born Walden Robert Cassotto in East Harlem, New York, the son of Vanina “Nina” Cassotto, who was eighteen years old, unmarried, and living on welfare at the time of Bobby’s birth. The identity of his father was never revealed to him. To save the family from scandal, Nina’s mother, Vivian “Polly” Cassotto, raised the baby as her own. Bobby grew up believing that his grandmother was his mother, while his real mother pretended to be his sister. He did not learn the truth until 1968, when he was thirty-two years old. The disclosure crushed him emotionally and physically. He told family and friends, “My whole life has been a lie” (Darin, p. 234). In 1942 Nina married Carmine “Charlie” Maffia, with whom she had three more children....

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Denver, John (31 December 1943–12 October 1997), singer, songwriter, and environmental activist, was born Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr., in Roswell, New Mexico, the son of Henry John “Dutch” Deutschendorf, an air force pilot, and Erma Swope Deutschendorf. Dutch Deutschendorf's military career forced the family to move often, and John grew up a shy, self-conscious loner with few friends. He began taking guitar lessons when he was eleven, and in high school he used his natural talent for playing and singing to gain popularity. From 1961 to 1964 he studied architecture at Texas Tech University, but he quit school in his junior year and moved to Los Angeles, where he hoped to devote himself full time to a music career. Taking the name “John Denver,” he began playing at small folk clubs in the area with some success. He became a member of the “Backporch Majority,” which played on the back porch of Ledbetter's, a club owned by Randy Sparks of the New Christy Minstrels, a popular folk group. But folk music was in transition at this time, as electric guitars and drums were more often being used, much to the dismay of traditionalists....

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Downey, Morton (14 November 1901–25 October 1985), singer, composer, and businessman, was born in Wallingford, Connecticut, the son of James Andrew Downey, the fire chief of Wallingford and a tavern keeper, and Elizabeth Cox. When Downey was eight, he received $5 for singing at a church social. Engagements at picnics, political rallies, and Elks Club meetings followed. He developed an act with Philip Boudini, both playing accordions. For Downey, the accordion was mostly a prop. By the time he was fourteen people were paying $15 to hear him sing....

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Hall, Wendall (23 August 1896–02 April 1969), singer, composer, music publisher, and advertising executive, was born Wendall Woods Hall in St. George, Kansas, the son of Rev. George Franklin Hall and Laura Woods Hall. (His mother's lineage can be traced back to Mayflower...

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Wendall Hall. Courtesy of Michael R. Pitts.

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Helms, Bobby (15 August 1936–19 June 1997), singer and songwriter, was born Robert Lee Helms in Bloomington, Indiana, the son of Fred R. Helms and Hildreth “Helen” Adams Helms. At an early age he showed a talent for music, and by the mid-1940s he and his older brother Freddy were singing as a duo called the Smiling Boys on WTTS, a local radio station. Their father founded a weekend stage show, “The Monroe County Jamboree,” to showcase his sons, and in 1949 they were featured on “The Happy Valley Show” on WTTV, Channel 4, in Indianapolis. The next year they became regulars on that station's “Hayloft Frolics.” When his brother left the act in 1953, “Bouncing” Bobby Helms, as he was known, went solo and joined the Bob Hardy Country Show. The show toured the tri-state area of Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio, where Helms developed a big following. He married Esther Marie Hendrickson in 1953, and in 1955 he recorded four original songs for Speed Records....

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Bobby Helms. Courtesy of Michael R. Pitts.

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Howard, Joe (12 February 1867–19 May 1961), singer and composer, was born Joseph E. Howard in New York City, the son of a Mulberry Street saloon keeper. His parents’ names are unknown. He was orphaned by the age of seven and spent some time in a Roman Catholic orphanage from which he escaped frequently (he later claimed to have spent much of his time singing for pennies on street corners and in saloons). By the time he was eleven, Howard had debuted in vaudeville as a boy soprano. As a teenager, he finally escaped the orphanage for good and hopped a freight train for St. Louis, Missouri, where he sold newspapers before landing a singing job in McNigh, Johnson, and Slavin’s Refined Minstrels....

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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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Miller, Roger (02 January 1936–25 October 1992), musician, was born Roger Dean Miller in Fort Worth, Texas, the son of Jean Miller and Landine Burdine, farmers. Miller was thirteen months old when his father died, and rather than commit her children to an orphanage, his mother sent her three sons to live with her late husband’s brothers. From the age of three, Roger Miller was raised by Elmer D. Miller and Armelia Miller in Erick, Oklahoma....

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Newley, Anthony (24 September 1931–14 April 1999), singer and songwriter, was born in the East End of London, the son of Frances Grace Newley, a single mother. It has been reported that Newley's father was a local building contractor who made himself known late in Newley's life, but his name has not been recorded. Educated mainly locally, Newley, like many London children during World War II, was evacuated to the countryside. A sojourn with a music hall performer introduced him to theater, and at age fourteen, while working as a tea boy for an advertising agency, he entered London's Italia Conti stage school....

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Anthony Newley. With wife Joan Collins, 1963. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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Nyro, Laura (18 October 1947–08 April 1997), popular singer-songwriter from the late 1960s onward, was born Laura Nigro in the Bronx, New York, the daughter of Louis Nigro, a piano tuner and jazz trumpeter, and Gilda Mirsky Nigro, a bookkeeper. A largely self-taught pianist and an avid reader of poetry who grew up listening to Leontyne Price, ...