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Akeman, Stringbean (17 June 1914–10 November 1973), banjo player and comedian, was born David Akeman in Annville, Kentucky, the son of James Akeman and Alice (maiden name unknown). Situated halfway between Corbin and Richmond, Annville was part of a region that produced several other notable banjoists, such as ...

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Cousin Emmy (1903–11 April 1980), country singer, banjoist, and comedian, was born Cynthia May Carver near Lamb, a hamlet in south central Kentucky near Glasgow. The youngest of eight children, she grew up in a log cabin while her father tried to make ends meet working as a sharecropper raising tobacco. Her family was musical, and she learned old English and Scottish ballads from her great-grandmother. As she grew up, she became proficient on a number of instruments, ranging from the orthodox (fiddle, banjo, guitar) to the unusual (the rubber glove, the Jew’s harp, the hand saw). A natural “show off” and entertainer, by around 1915 she was leaving the farm and trying her hand at entertaining in nearby towns. Having no real interest in school, she taught herself to read by studying mail order catalogues....

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Ford, Whitey (12 May 1901–20 June 1986), vaudeville and country musician and comedian, also known as the Duke of Paducah, was born in DeSoto, Missouri, fifty miles from St. Louis. The names and occupations of his parents are unknown. When he was one year old his mother died, and he was sent to Little Rock, Arkansas, to be reared by a grandmother. Ford attended Peabody Grammar School, acting in school plays and performing in talent shows. He ran away at age seventeen to join the navy during World War I and served four years. During this time he practiced on the tenor banjo, at that time a competitor with the guitar, until he became an accomplished performer. ...

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Hall, Adelaide (20 October 1901?–07 November 1993), vaudeville, musical theater, and jazz singer and actress, was born in New York City, the daughter of William Hall, a Pennsylvania German music teacher at the Pratt Institute, and Elizabeth Gerrard, an African American. She made many jokes about her birth year; on her birthday in 1991 she declared that she was ninety years old, hence the conjectural 1901....

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Hill, Chippie (15 March 1905–07 May 1950), dancer and singer, was born Bertha Hill in Charleston, South Carolina, the daughter of John Hill and Ida Jones. From the age of nine she sang in church. The family moved to New York City sometime around 1918, and the following year Hill danced at Leroy’s Club in Harlem in a show led by ...

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Lewis, Ted (06 June 1890–25 August 1971), entertainer, musician, and bandleader, was born Theodore Leopold Friedman in rural Circleville, Ohio, the son of an owner of a dry goods store whose name cannot be ascertained. Young Theodore began his show business career performing in a nickelodeon in his hometown and learned to play the clarinet in his school band. As a beginning clarinetist, Lewis was something of a prodigy. Although he was never regarded seriously as a musician, he played easily and improvised naturally. Having no desire to go into the dry goods business and still in his teens, he went to Columbus, Ohio, where for a time he demonstrated instruments in a music store. His freewheeling improvisations amused customers but eventually caused him to lose the job....

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Martin, Sara (18 June 1884–24 May 1955), blues and vaudeville singer, was born Sara Dunn in Louisville, Kentucky, the daughter of William Dunn and Katie Pope. Nothing is known of her youth. Based in Chicago, she traveled in vaudeville from around 1915.

While performing in New York City clubs and cabarets, Martin was discovered by songwriter and publisher ...

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Pearl, Minnie (25 October 1912–04 March 1996), entertainer, was born Sarah Ophelia Colley in Centerville, Tennessee, to Thomas K. Colley, a lumberman, and Fannie Tate House Colley, a pianist and prominent suffragist. The youngest of five daughters, she grew up in a prosperous household, and her flair for dramatics and music, evident at an early age, was encouraged by the family. She sang and gave dramatic readings in public during her childhood, and by her teens she had decided to become a stage actress. She planned to attend a women's college in the East and then go on to drama school, but during her senior year in high school the stock market crash of 1929 occurred and her father was unable to pay for such an expensive education. Instead, she enrolled in the fall of 1930 at Ward-Belmont College, an exclusive girls' finishing school in Nashville that had an outstanding drama department. Although she felt initially out of place among her far more elegant classmates, she perfected her acting skills there, entertaining at campus events and becoming one of the school's most popular students....

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Minnie Pearl In costume, 1957. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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Rainey, Ma (26 April 1886–22 December 1939), vaudeville, blues, and jazz singer and self-proclaimed "Mother of the Blues", vaudeville, blues, and jazz singer and self-proclaimed “Mother of the Blues,” was born Gertrude Malissa Nix Pridgett in Columbus, Georgia, the daughter of Thomas Pridgett and Ella Allen, an employee of the Georgia Central Railroad. Gertrude began her musical career at age fourteen in a local talent show and soon was singing at the Springer Opera House in Columbus. Early in her career, she met William “Pa” Rainey, whom she married in 1904. They toured the South, performing in tent shows, honky-tonks, carnivals, and vaudeville houses with F. S. Wolcott’s Rabbit Foot Minstrels and later with their own troupe. “Ma” Rainey earned a reputation as a flamboyant performer who wore gaudy costumes and had a “wild” stage persona that manifested itself in her seductive movements to her blues music. At the time the Raineys and many other black entertainers were booked into their engagements by the Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA). The wages paid to black entertainers were so low and the working conditions so exploitative that TOBA came to stand for “Tough on Black Artists,” or, more colloquially, “Tough on Black Asses.”...

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Smith, Clara (1894–02 February 1935), blues and vaudeville singer, was born in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Nothing is known of her parents and childhood. In about 1910 she began touring the South in vaudeville. Probably in 1920 she joined the new Theater Owners’ Booking Association circuit, in which context guitarist ...

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Smith, Mamie (26 May 1883–30 October 1946?), blues and vaudeville singer and film actress, was born Mamie Robinson in Cincinnati, Ohio. Nothing is known of her parents. At the age of ten she toured with a white act, the Four Dancing Mitchells. She danced in J. Homer Tutt and Salem Tutt-Whitney’s The Smart Set Company in 1912 and then left the tour the next year to sing in Harlem clubs and theaters. Around this time she married William “Smitty” Smith, a singing waiter who died in 1928. At the Lincoln Theater in 1918 she starred in ...

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Stuff Smith © William P. Gottlieb; used by permission. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress (LC-GLB23-0788 DLC).

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Smith, Stuff (13 August 1909–25 September 1967), jazz violinist, singer, and comedian, was born Leroy Gordon Smith in Portsmouth, Ohio, the son of Cornelius T. Smith, a barber and musician, and Anna Lee Redman, a schoolteacher. Smith’s birth certificate gives 13 August, but he celebrated his birthday on 14 August, for reasons unknown (perhaps superstition); also, he was known to many as Hezekiah (or by the nickname Hez), but this name is not on the certificate....

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Smith, Trixie (1895–21 September 1943), blues and vaudeville singer, was born in Atlanta, Georgia. Nothing is known of her parents and childhood. Having studied at Selma University in Alabama, she came to New York City around 1915 to perform in clubs and theaters. She was at the New Standard Theater in Philadelphia in 1916, and she toured on the Theater Owners’ Booking Association circuit, probably in 1920 and 1921....