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Ashby, Irving C. (29 December 1920–22 April 1987), jazz guitarist, was born in Somerville, Massachusetts, the son of an apartment superintendent. His parents’ names are unknown. The family was musical and closely in touch with the world of entertainment: “ Fats Waller used to come by the house all the time,” Ashby told writer James Haskins (p. 57). Ashby taught himself to play guitar. At age fifteen he joined a band that played sophisticated arrangements for college dances, and, deeply embarrassed by his inability to read music, he began to learn chordal notation. He performed at a nightclub at Revere Beach while attending Roxbury Memorial High School. Ashby’s abilities as a classical guitarist won him a scholarship at an open audition for the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, but the school had no guitar teacher and thus the award went to the runner-up: “So that’s the extent of my conservatory background—in and out the same day,” he told writer Harvey Siders (p. 10). Having made his own ukulele at age twelve, Ashby helped to manufacture guitars at the Stromberg factory in Boston during a period when he was performing on a radio show on station WNAC....

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Blanton, Jimmy (18 November 1918–30 July 1942), bass player, was born James Blanton in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Blanton is widely regarded as the most outstanding bass player of the late 1930s and early 1940s, almost single-handedly revolutionizing jazz bass playing both technically and conceptually. As a child, Blanton studied violin, making his first public appearance at age eight. Showing exceptional talent and a serious interest in music, he learned music theory from an uncle and later switched to string bass while studying at Tennessee State College (1934–1937). Precociously gifted on this instrument, Blanton was soon playing with local bands, including his mother’s (a pianist and bandleader). In 1937 he moved to St. Louis to play with the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra and ...

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Braud, Wellman (25 January 1891–29 October 1966), jazz bassist, was born Wellman Breaux in St. James Parish, Louisiana. Nothing is known of his parents except that they were of Creole heritage, and it is not known when he anglicized his name. Braud began playing violin at age seven and later took up guitar. His earliest work was with string trios playing on the streets of New Orleans. During the 1910s he worked regularly at Tom Anderson’s cabaret, probably playing guitar in a group with violinist ...

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Broonzy, Big Bill (26 June 1893?–15 August 1958), blues singer and guitarist, was born William Lee Conley Broonzy in Scott, Bolivar County, Mississippi, the son of Frank Broonzy and Nettie (or Mittie) Belcher, former slaves who became sharecroppers. One of at least sixteen children, including a twin sister, he lived in Mississippi until age eight, when his family moved to Arkansas, near Pine Bluff, to try sharecropping. As a youngster he made violins out of cornstalks, learning music from an uncle, Jerry Belcher, and a local musician known as See See Rider. He and a friend began playing homemade instruments to entertain local children, though always out of sight of his parents—stern Baptists who frowned on secular music. The parental disapproval eased, however, when he graduated to a real instrument (supposedly bought for him by a white patron) and began earning money as a musician. When he was twelve, the family moved to Scotts Crossing, Arkansas, where he continued to play, mainly for white dances....

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Chambers, Paul (22 April 1935–04 January 1969), bassist, known as “Mr. P. C.,” was born Paul Laurence Dunbar Chambers, Jr., in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Little is known of his parents and early life. After his mother died, Chambers moved to Detroit, Michigan, with his family when he was thirteen. In high school he played the baritone saxophone and then the tuba, but sometime in 1949 he began to play the string bass. He was soon working professionally with guitarist Kenny Burrell, trumpeter ...

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Christian, Charlie (29 July 1916–02 March 1942), musician, was born Charles Christian in Dallas, Texas; his father was a blues guitarist and singer, his mother a pianist (their names are unknown). The family moved to Oklahoma City when Christian was five, and he grew up there amid the diverse musical styles of the Southwest. Itinerant blues guitarists and singers played everywhere, and the young Christian also would have heard Texas blues bands, ethnic dance music, cowboy songs, rural banjo pickers, and white and black fiddle players, both in person and on radios and jukeboxes. Oklahoma City was home to ...

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Bill McCulloch and Barry Lee Pearson

Davis, Gary D. (30 April 1896–05 May 1972), guitarist and religious singer, was born in Laurens County, South Carolina, south of Spartanburg, the son of John Davis and Evelina (maiden name unknown), farmers. One of eight children, he grew up on a farm he later described as being so far out in the country “you couldn’t hear a train whistle blow unless it was on a cloudy day.” Partially blinded as a baby, Davis was placed in the care of his grandmother. He showed an aptitude for music as a boy, first playing harmonica and later, with his grandmother’s help, constructing a guitar. When he was between the ages of seven and ten his mother gave him a guitar, and over the next several years he became proficient, possibly learning from a local musician, Craig Fowler, and an uncle. By age ten he was singing in a Baptist church and playing for local dances. In his teens Davis began adding blues to a repertoire that already included country dance tunes and religious songs....

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Dickerson, Carroll (1895– October 1957), jazz and popular bandleader and violinist, was a . His birthplace, family, and upbringing are unknown. Through the 1920s Dickerson led jazz bands in Chicago, including residencies at the Entertainers’ Café (1921) and Sunset Café (1922–1924), where cornetist George Mitchell...

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Pops Foster © William P. Gottlieb; used by permission. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress (LC-GLB23-0294 DLC).

Article

Burton W. Peretti

Foster, Pops (18 May 1892–30 October 1969), musician, was born George Murphy Foster on a plantation near McCall, Louisiana, the son of Charles Foster, a butler, and Annie (maiden name unknown), a seamstress. Foster was African American, with considerable Cherokee Indian ancestry from his mother’s family. As a boy he attended a Catholic elementary school and played the cello in plantation bands led by his father and uncle. His brother Willie excelled at the banjo and also became a professional musician. When Foster was ten his family moved to New Orleans, where he soon switched from the cello to the double bass. He enrolled at New Orleans University, a secondary school for blacks....

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Fuller, Blind Boy (10 July 1907?–13 February 1941), blues singer and guitarist, was born Fulton Allen in Wadesboro, North Carolina, the son of Calvin Allen and Mary Jane Walker. The exact date of his birth remains debatable because two different years are listed on official documents. Little is known of his early life except that he attended school through the fourth grade in Wadesboro and began learning to play guitar in his teens. After his mother’s death in the mid-1920s, he moved with his father and the rest of his family to Rockingham, North Carolina; there he met Cora Mae Martin, whom he married around 1926. They married in Bennettsville, South Carolina, possibly for legal reasons: she was only fourteen, and he was either nineteen or seventeen (depending on his actual birthdate). It is believed that they raised one adopted child....

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Green, Grant (06 June 1935–31 January 1979), jazz electric guitarist, was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the son of John Green, a security guard, and Martha Smith. His year of birth appears incorrectly as 1931 in standard reference sources, but his birth certificate confirms 1935, as Green himself asserted twice in interviews....

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Tiny Grimes, c. 1946-1948. © William P. Gottlieb; used by permission. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress (LC-GLB23-0354 DLC).

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Grimes, Tiny (07 July 1916?–04 March 1989), jazz and rhythm-and-blues guitarist and bandleader, was born Lloyd Grimes in Newport News, Virginia. Grimes told interviewer Bob Kenselaar that he was unsure of his birth date, there being no certificate. He told writers Stanley Dance and Arnie Berle that he was born in 1917, but other published sources give 1916 or 1915. Details of his parents are unknown. Grimes took up drums in a Boy Scout marching band. He played regularly at a beach dancehall near Newport News until a storm and subsequent flood destroyed the hall and his drums. Around the seventh grade he dropped out of school to work typical boyhood jobs selling papers and shining shoes. He taught himself to play piano, and while living in Washington, D.C., he became a pianist and singer in a trio called Wynken, Blynken and Nod. The group performed regularly on radio on “ ...

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Al Hall © William P. Gottlieb; used by permission. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress (LC-GLB23-0378 DLC).

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Hall, Al (08 March 1915–18 January 1988), jazz string bass player, was born Alfred Wesley Hall in Jacksonville, Florida, the son of Henry Hall, a cement finisher, and Alene K. (maiden name unknown), a dietician. (His birth date is often given as 18 Mar., but 8 Mar. appeared on his driver’s license, in the ...

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Holley, Major Quincy, Jr. (10 July 1924–25 October 1990), bassist, was born in Detroit, Michigan, the son of Major Quincy Holley, a minister and bass singer. The name of his mother, a pianist, is unknown. Holley first studied violin around the age of six with a German teacher named Mr. Hilken, and at first his parents only allowed him to listen to classical music. At age thirteen, he heard on the radio the sound that would eventually draw him to play the string bass— ...

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Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch

Hooker, Earl (15 January 1930–21 April 1970), blues guitarist, was born Earl Zebedee Hooker, Jr., in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the son of Earl Hooker, Sr., and Mary Blare, Delta farmers. Because Earl, Sr., played several instruments, including the guitar, and Mary had once worked as a vocalist with a touring variety show, Earl, Jr., and his twin sister were exposed to music at an early age. Earl, Jr., taught himself to play guitar by age ten, and a year later, after a move to Chicago, he began taking formal lessons at the Lyon and Healy music school, learning not only guitar, but banjo, mandolin, piano, and drums. His primary mentor was an older Arkansas-born guitarist, ...

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Graham Russell Hodges and Jay Mazzocchi

Hopkins, Lightnin’ (15 March 1912–30 January 1982), blues singer and guitarist, was born Samuel Hopkins in Centerville, Texas, the son of Abe H. Hopkins, a musician, and Frances Sims. His father died when Hopkins was an infant, leaving the family to survive in the stark farmlands of the East Texas “Piney Woods.” Hopkins’s sister and four brothers were all musicians. He learned to play the organ at church at his mother’s urging, but he was drawn to the guitar through the playing of his older brother John Henry. He was forbidden to touch John Henry’s guitar, however, so he built his own out of a plank of wood, a cigar box, and chicken wire. He continually pestered John Henry to allow him to play the real guitar and often borrowed it on the sly. After discovering Hopkins skillfully playing the instrument, an impressed John Henry gave it to him. The eight-year-old quit school and took to the road, working odd jobs and playing music wherever he could. In the summer of 1920 he traveled to Buffalo, Texas, and attended a performance by blues legend ...

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Bill McCulloch and Barry Lee Pearson

House, Son (21 March 1902?–19 October 1988), blues musician, was born Eddie James House, Jr., in the Mississippi Delta plantation community of Riverton, north of Clarksdale in Coahoma County, Mississippi, the son of Eddie House and Maggie (maiden name unknown). His parents worked as farm laborers in Mississippi and Louisiana. In later interviews, House said his father was also a musician who performed on weekends until he put secular music aside and joined the Baptist church. House, also active in the church, showed little interest in secular music as a youth. He supposedly preached a sermon while still in his mid-teens and later became a Baptist pastor....