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Todd Decker

[Kubelsky, Benjamin ]

(b Chicago, IL, Feb 14, 1894; d Beverly Hills, CA, Dec 26, 1974). American Entertainer, actor, and violinist. The son of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Lithuania, he began playing violin at age six and was considered a local prodigy. By age 17 he was playing in vaudeville pit orchestras and soon moved onto the stage. Benny paired up with a pianist—initially Cora Salisbury, then Lyman Wood—in his signature musical act of this time, “From Grand Opera to Ragtime.” After brief service in the US Navy during World War I, Benny returned to vaudeville as a single in an act emphasizing comedy over music. He married Mary Livingstone (Sadye Marks) in 1927. She was an integral part of Benny’s act for most of his career. Although a movie contract with MGM in 1929 led nowhere, Benny found his true medium on radio. His first radio appearance came on ...

Article

Gary W. Kennedy

revised by Philip Gentry

(b New Orleans, LA, Sept 11, 1967). American pianist, singer, leader, and actor. He began playing piano at the age of three, was sitting in at local jazz clubs when he was six, and made his first recordings three years later; he had piano lessons with James Booker until 1980 and studied with Ellis Marsalis at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. After a brief period at Loyola University he moved to New York and attended the Manhattan School of Music; he later transferred to Hunter College to study history and economics. In 1987 he began working in New York, where he held a residency at the Oak Room in the Algonquin Hotel. He made his first international tour in 1988, and the following year he recorded the soundtrack to the film When Harry Met Sally, the success of which elevated him to the status of a pop star and led to his forming an orchestra. During the 1990s he toured with this group and began working as a film and television actor. Connick’s piano playing is based on the New Orleans style, which he learned from Booker, but also shows the influence of Thelonious Monk and Erroll Garner. Although a pop crooner and a big band traditionalist for most of his career, he briefly experimented with funk styles on his album ...

Article

Mos Def  

Jared Pauley

[Smith, Dante Terrell; Yasiin Bey]

(b Brooklyn, NY, Dec 11, 1973). American rapper and actor. He is known for his wide-ranging abilities as a lyricist and is also a competent multi-instrumentalist. He first came to prominence during the late 1990s as a member of Black Star, a duo with the rapper Talib Kweli. Many of his lyrics focus on political and socioeconomic subjects.

A convert to Islam, he initially formed a group with his younger brother and sister called Urban Thermo Dynamics. The group was signed to Payday Records, but they managed to release only two singles and their debut album Manifest Destiny was shelved until 2004. In 1996 he appeared in several songs on Da Bush Babees’ album Gravity (1996). He also made an appearance on De La Soul’s album Stakes is High (1996).

In 1998 Mos Def (shorthand for “most definitely”) teamed up with Kweli to form Black Star; the pair released their critically acclaimed debut ...

Article

Jonathan Greenberg

[Clifton A.; Ukulele Ike]

(b Hannibal, MO, June 14, 1895; d Los Angeles, CA, July 21, 1971). American singer, actor, and ukulele player. He started performing in St. Louis movie houses and saloons as a teenager. He learned to play the ukulele as an easy way to accompany himself, taking advantage of the popularity of that instrument following the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. He spent the following decade based in New York, where he had significant success on Broadway, in vaudeville, and on record. He performed in George and Ira Gershwin’s Lady be Good (1924–5) in which he introduced “Fascinatin’ Rhythm.” Edwards’ first film was The Hollywood Review of 1929, in which he introduced “Singin’ in the Rain.”

Edwards never regained the level of success he achieved in the 1920s, partly due to struggles with finances and alcohol abuse. His singing style and his brand of spare ukulele accompaniment went out of style. His biggest post-1920s success came in work for Walt Disney Productions as Jiminy Cricket in ...

Article

Clay Motley

[The Duke of Paducah; Whitey]

(b Desoto, MO, May 12, 1901; d Brentwood, TN, June 20, 1986). American comedian and banjo player. Ford was one of the earliest country comedians to use the emerging medium of radio. Possessing a third-grade education, he joined Otto Gray’s Oklahoma Cowboys after his 1922 discharge from the Navy, which led to tours with Gene Autry and work with Chicago’s WLS Barn Dance. Leaving WLS, he joined NBC’s Plantation Party, writing most of the segments, hosting, and starring as the comedic “Duke of Paducah” for nine years, until leaving in 1942 to be the comedic star of WSM’s Grand Ole Opry. He left the Opry in 1947 to host multiple popular national radio shows, toured in the mid-1950s with the Rock and Roll Revue, and even shared the bill with a young Elvis Presley. The producers of the popular variety show Hee haw (1969–82) purchased Ford’s collection of over half a million country jokes, securing his influence on several later generations of country comedians. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in ...

Article

Jeannie Gayle Pool

[Knechtges, Margaret Fern]

(b Sioux City, IA, Jan 17, 1905; d Los Angeles, CA, Feb 12, 2007). American tenor saxophonist, clarinetist, vibraphonist, singer, music contractor, and advocate for women instrumentalists. She studied music with her father (violinist) and mother (singer) and began a lifetime of touring, first with a Highland dance troupe, at age seven. She took up the saxophone in high school and started her first all-girl band, the Melody Girls, in Sioux City.

In 1928 Gilbert moved to Hollywood, and toured the vaudeville circuit in a sextet of women saxophone players backing up C-melody saxophonist Rudy Wiedoeft. She founded her own band, which played the Hawaiian Islands for a year, and organized women sideliners for motion pictures through the 1930s. During this period, her bands appeared in prominent swing concerts and performed on radio. Gilbert also established herself as an advocate for women instruments through interviews and national publications in magazines such as ...

Article

Lisa MacKinney

[Koch, Lydia Anne ]

(b Rochester, NY, June 2, 1959). American singer, songwriter, guitarist, composer, poet, and performance artist. Lydia Lunch arrived in New York City as a teenage runaway in 1976, after a childhood of chaos, abuse, and extreme neglect. Motivated by the Velvet Underground, the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, and the incendiary writing of Lester Bangs in Creem magazine, Lunch formed Teenage Jesus and the Jerks in 1977. The group (which briefly included James Chance) released only a handful of singles and EPs before breaking up in 1979, but Lunch had established herself as an uncompromising purveyor of a brutal, confronting, violently sexual, and bleak artistic vision. She is considered to be a founder of No Wave, an abrasive, untutored form of noise-based punk music that was often politically charged and musically experimental. No wave often involved conventional instruments (guitar, bass, electronic keyboards) used as extreme noise-making devices to create discomforting, visceral sounds—Lunch regularly used electric guitar with a slide in this manner to piercing, abrasive effect. Lunch released her first solo album, ...

Article

Lauren Joiner

[Hall, Marcel Theo]

(b Harlem, New York; April 8, 1964).

American rapper, beatboxer, MC, DJ, and actor. He began his career in 1985 as a beatboxer for Roxanne Shanté of the Juice Crew. In 1988, he signed with Cold Chillin’ Records and released his first solo album, Goin’ Off. His second album, The Biz Never Sleeps (1989), went gold and included his first Top Ten hit, “Just a Friend,” which peaked at number nine on Billboard’s Pop Singles chart. The single, Markie’s biggest hit to-date, features the self-deprecating and satirical humor that won him the title “Clown Prince of Hip Hop.” Besides “Just a Friend,” he is also well known for the controversy surrounding a 1991 lawsuit leveled against him by singer/songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan. Markie’s song “Alone Again,” from his album I Need a Haircut (1991), featured an unauthorized sample of O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally).” The case featured the first federal decision regarding music sampling and had a profound effect on hip hop, requiring prior approval of samples on future recordings. An injunction was issued against the sale of ...

Article

David Brackett

( b East Tupelo, MS, Jan 8, 1935; d Memphis, Aug 16, 1977). American rock and roll singer, guitarist and actor . As the most successful artist of the mid-1950s rock and roll explosion, Presley had a profound impact on popular music. His sense of style, musical and personal, was both the focal point of the media reaction to early rock and roll and the inspiration for many of the most important rock musicians to follow. The narrative of his meteoric rise and subsequent decline amidst mysterious and tawdry circumstances fuelled many myths both during his life and after his death at 42....

Article

Rich Kienzle

[Hubbard, Jerry Reed ]

(b Atlanta, GA, March 20, 1937; d Nashville, TN, Sept 1, 2008). American guitarist, vocalist, songwriter, and actor. He grew up in a family split by divorce and poverty. At age seven he gravitated to guitar and became enamored of the fingerstyle playing of Merle Travis and Chet Atkins. As a teenager, he played country music in the Atlanta area and took the professional name Jerry Reed after signing with Capitol Records in 1954. His records did not sell many copies, but Capitol rockabilly star Gene Vincent made Reed’s composition “Crazy Legs” a staple of his repertoire. In the early 1960s, though Reed’s recordings failed to sell, stars including Brenda Lee and Porter Wagoner began recording his songs. By then, he was a Nashville session guitarist. He developed a new and unorthodox approach to Travis-Atkins fingerstyle playing involving the use of the right-hand thumb and all four fingers. Chet Atkins began recording Reed instrumentals and later adapted aspects of Reed’s unique style to his own playing. In ...

Article

Douglas B. Green

[Sly, Leonard Franklin; Slye, Len]

(b Cincinnati, OH, Nov 5, 1911; d Apple Valley, CA, July 6, 1998). American singing cowboy, actor, and guitarist. Known as “the King of the Cowboys,” Sly grew up in a series of hardscrabble towns along the Ohio River until his family packed their belongings in an old Dodge sedan and headed for California in mid-1930. There, his strong rhythm guitar work, sweet voice, and outstanding yodeling ability quickly placed him in demand in the southern California music scene. He was the sparkplug in the formation of the Sons of the Pioneers, cajoling Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer to form what quickly became the top western singing group of their day. He also had ambitions beyond the group, auditioning for the spot as Universal’s new singing cowboy. He was passed over in favor of Bob Baker; Baker’s series fizzled, and Len Slye, adding an “e” to his name, was available when Republic needed a new singing cowboy to replace Gene Autry, who had walked out on strike. Len Slye quickly became Roy Rogers and was thrust headlong into a film written for Autry called ...

Article

Craig Jennex

(b Thunder Bay, ON, Nov 28, 1949). Canadian pianist, composer, musical director, actor, producer, and bandleader. He has been musical director for David Letterman’s late-night shows since 1982. Prior to working with Letterman, Shaffer was a featured performer on “Saturday Night Live.” He has served as musical director and producer for the Blues Brothers and cowrote the 1980s dance hit “It’s raining men.” He has served as musical director for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony since its inception in ...

Article

Patrick Huber

[James Gideon ]

(b Thomas Bridge, near Monroe, GA, June 6, 1885; d Dacula, GA, May 13, 1960). American fiddler, singer, comedian, and hillbilly string band leader. He was a well-known entertainer in north Georgia during the early 20th century, famous for his outrageous comic antics, old-time fiddling, and trick singing. He competed regularly at Atlanta’s annual Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Association conventions and won the state fiddling championship in 1928. In 1924, Columbia A&R man Frank B. Walker recruited Tanner and his sometime musical partner, the blind Atlanta street singer and guitarist Riley Puckett, to make some of the earliest recordings of what soon came to be called hillbilly music.

In 1926, Walker assembled a studio group around Tanner called the Skillet Lickers, whose other regular members consisted of guitarist and lead singer Puckett, fiddler Clayton McMichen, and banjoist Fate Norris. The band’s first release, “Bully of the Town”/ “Pass around the Bottle and We’ll all Take a Drink,” recorded in ...

Article

Jonas Westover

[Castelluccio, Francis Stephen ]

(b Newark, NJ, May 3, 1934). American singer, actor, and bass player. He is best known for his distinctive falsetto voice, which he showcased as a solo artist and as the front man for the group Four Seasons, the. Beginning to sing as a young child, Valli began to work with a mentor, Jean Valley, from whom he adopted his stage name. His career began in earnest in 1951, when he became a fourth member of the Variety Trio, playing locally in New Jersey. Valli transitioned from one band to the next until the formation of the Four Lovers, which recorded “You’re the apple of my eye” in 1956. In 1960 the group transformed, with some personnel changes, into the Four Seasons. Valli performed as its lead singer throughout the 1960s. He also recorded as a solo singer, finding success with “The sun ain’t gonna shine (anymore)” (...