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Louis Armstrong © William P. Gottlieb; used by permission. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress (LC-GLB13-0017 DLC).

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Armstrong, Louis (04 August 1901–06 July 1971), jazz trumpeter and singer, , known universally as “Satchmo” and later as “Pops,” was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, the illegitimate son of William Armstrong, a boiler stoker in a turpentine plant, and Mary Est “Mayann” Albert, a laundress. Abandoned by his father shortly after birth, Armstrong was raised by his paternal grandmother, Josephine, until he was returned to his mother’s care at age five. Mother and son moved from Jane Alley, in a violence-torn slum, to an only slightly better area, Franklyn and Perdido streets, where nearby cheap cabarets gave the boy his first introduction to the new kind of music, jazz, that was developing in New Orleans. Although Armstrong claims to have heard the early jazz cornetist ...

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Bentley, Gladys (12 Aug. 1907–18 Jan. 1960), African American pianist, blues singer, and nightclub entertainer, was born Gladys Alberta Bentley in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the oldest of four children of George L. Bentley and Mary Mote Bentley. Her father was born in the United States, and her mother immigrated from Trinidad. Raised in a working-class family in Philadelphia, Bentley had a difficult childhood, and she often felt like an outcast. In an autobiographical essay for ...

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Cab Calloway Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1933. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-89027).

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Calloway, Cab (25 December 1907–18 November 1994), jazz and popular singer and bandleader, was born Cabell Calloway III in Rochester, New York, the son of Cabell Calloway, a lawyer who also worked in real estate, and Martha Eulalia Reed, a public school teacher and church organist. Around 1914 the family moved to Baltimore, Maryland. His father died around 1920, and his mother married John Nelson Fortune, who held a succession of respectable jobs. Calloway sang solos at Bethlehem Methodist Episcopal Church, and he took voice lessons at age fourteen. He was nevertheless an incorrigible teenager, and in 1921 his stepfather sent him to Downingtown Industrial and Agricultural School, a reform school run by his granduncle, a pastor in Downington, Pennsylvania. In the spring of 1922 Calloway returned home on his own initiative, by his own account not reformed, but now a man rather than a boy. He thereafter moved comfortably between the proprieties of mainstream American life and the depravities of American entertainment....

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Charles, Ray (23 September 1930–10 June 2004), pop and jazz singer, pianist, and composer, was born Ray Charles Robinson in Albany, Georgia, the son of Bailey Robinson, a laborer, and Aretha Williams. Williams, a teenage orphan, lived in Greenville, Florida, with Robinson's mother and his wife, Mary Jane Robinson. The Robinson family had informally adopted her, and she became known as Aretha Robinson. Scandalously Aretha became pregnant by Bailey Robinson, and she briefly left Greenville late in the summer of 1930 to be with relatives in Albany for the baby's birth. Mother and child then returned to Greenville, and Aretha and Mary Jane shared Ray Charles's upbringing. He was deeply devoted to his mother and later recalled her perseverance, self-sufficiency, and pride as guiding lights in his life. His father abandoned the family and took another wife elsewhere....

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Ray Charles. Gelatin silver print, c. 1961, by Michel Salou. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

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Crosby, Bob (25 August 1913–09 March 1993), jazz and popular bandleader and singer, and radio, film, and television personality, was born George Robert Crosby in Spokane, Washington, the son of Harry Lowe Crosby, a bookkeeper at the Inland Products Canning Company, and Catherine “Kate” Helen Harrigan. He attended Webster High School, North Central High School, and Gonzaga, a Jesuit high school and university. Not a remarkable student, he excelled at sports but chose instead to pursue a career as a singer, following his famous brother, ...

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Hughes, Revella Eudosia (02 July 1895–24 October 1987), musician, singer, and educator, was born in Huntington, West Virginia, the daughter of George W. Hughes, a postman, and Annie B. (maiden name unknown), a piano teacher and seamstress. At age five Hughes began studying piano with her mother and, at eight or nine, violin with a musician friend of her father’s. She attended Huntington’s segregated public schools. Disturbed when Hughes was racially harassed, her parents sent her to Hartshorn Memorial College (later part of Virginia Union University) in Richmond, which she attended from 1909 to 1911, graduating with a degree in music and elementary studies. She attended Oberlin High and Conservatory, graduating in 1915. In 1917 she earned a bachelor of music in piano from Howard’s Conservatory of Music, where she studied piano with LeRoy Tibbs and voice with conservatory director ...

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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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Machito © William P. Gottlieb; used by permission. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress (LC-GLB23-0585 DLC).

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Machito (16 February 1908?–15 April 1984), salsa and jazz bandleader, singer, and percussionist, was born Frank Raúl Grillo in Tampa, Florida, the son of Rogelio Grillo, formerly a cigar maker and then a grocery store owner, and Marta Amparo. In his oral history Machito claimed that 1908 was his year of birth, but in the same interview he claimed to be two years older than Mario Bauzá, which would make 1909 the correct date; 1912, given in some sources, seems less likely (though not impossible), since Machito was already an experienced professional musician in 1928. While he was still an infant his family moved to Havana, Cuba, where his father ran two restaurants. He was nicknamed Macho because he was the first son after three daughters, one of whom, Graciela, would figure prominently in his career. Immersed in Afro-Cuban music from childhood, he began his career as a singer and maracas player with the group Los Jovenes de Rendición. From 1928 to 1937 he performed in Cuba with María Teresa Vera’s El Sexteto Occidente, El Sexteto Agabama, El Sexteto Universo, Ignacio Piñero, and El Sexteto Nacional. During this period he married Luz María Pelgrino. They had one child....

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McRae, Carmen (08 April 1920–10 November 1994), jazz and popular singer, was born in New York City, the daughter of Osmond (or Oscar) McRae, the manager of a health club, and Evadne (maiden name unknown), both immigrants from the West Indies. During her lifetime McRae’s birth year was widely reported to be 1922, but according to obituaries she was actually born in 1920....

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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....

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Williams, Joe (12 December 1918–29 March 1999), blues and popular singer, was born Joseph Goreed in Cordele, Georgia, the son of Willie Goreed and Anne Beatrice Gilbert, whose occupations are unknown. At the age of “about three” Goreed, his mother, and grandmother moved to Chicago, where he was educated at Austin Otis Sexton Elementary School. From age ten Goreed funded his own education, which concluded at Englewood High School, by singing locally. At age twelve he founded the Jubilee Boys, who sang in Chicago churches, while earning $20–30 singing at late-night clubs. At age sixteen family members decided he would be professionally known as Williams. That year he dropped out of school and was soon singing four nights a week with the Johnny Long band. His repertoire was primarily the mainstream popular songs of the day, usually written by whites for those with a “white” point of view. “Moonlight and Shadows,” a tune from ...

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Wilson, Edith Goodall (06 September 1896–30 March 1981), blues and popular singer, was born in Louisville, Kentucky, the daughter of Hundley Goodall, a schoolteacher, and Susan Jones, a housekeeper. She grew up in a mixed middle-class and working-class black neighborhood of small, neat cottages. Like many African Americans, she began singing in the church and community social clubs. She completed her elementary education but dropped out of school by age fourteen. Her first taste of performing in an adult venue came in the White City Park talent shows in Louisville....