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Jim Haskins

entertainer and nightclub operator, was born in Alderson, West Virginia, the daughter of Thomas Smith, a barber, and Hattie E. (maiden name unknown), a domestic worker. Christened Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia, because her parents did not wish to disappoint the various neighbors and friends who offered suggestions for naming her, Bricktop received her nickname because of her red hair when she was in her late twenties from Barron Wilkins, owner of a nightclub called Barron's Exclusive Club in Prohibition-era Harlem.

Bricktop's father died when she was four, and her mother moved with the children to Chicago to be near relatives. Hattie Smith worked as a domestic in Chicago, and her children attended school. Bricktop showed early musical talent and interest in performing. She made her stage debut as a preschooler, playing the part of Eliza's son Harry in a production of Uncle Tom's Cabin at ...

Article

Freda Scott Giles

dancer, singer, entertainer, and actor, was born John William Sublett in Louisville, Kentucky. His parents’ names are not known. His early childhood was spent in Indianapolis, Indiana, where his family was part of a touring carnival; by the age of seven, John was performing on the stage, participating in amateur contests as a singer. Accounts differ as to when he returned to Louisville and when he met his vaudeville team partner, Ford Lee “Buck” Washington. Some sources list their ages as ten and six, respectively, while others list them as thirteen and nine. The team began working professionally by 1915 as “Buck and Bubbles,” an act combining music and comedy.

They would remain together for nearly forty years originally combining Washington s talents as a pianist with Sublett s as a singer when his voice changed Sublett turned to tap dancing as his primary talent As they developed their act ...

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Gregory Adamo

entertainer. One of the first African American superstars, Samuel George Davis Jr. was a tap dancer; film, theater, and television actor; singer; impressionist; and multi-instrument musician. From the 1940s until his death, Davis was a recognizable American entertainer. Truly a child of show business, he was born to vaudevillian parents in Harlem in 1925. He began performing at age three, eventually joining his father in the Will Mastin Trio, a tap dance troupe. He traveled on the vaudeville circuit in its waning days, and his hard work and talent made him the star of the act, eventually leading the trio to appearances on television and in major nightclubs. In 1954 Davis suffered a serious car accident while driving from a gig in Las Vegas to a recording session in Los Angeles He lost an eye as a result After his recovery Davis returned to performing and was ...

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Sammy Davis Jr., was born in New York City, the son of vaudeville performers Elvera Sanchez Davis and Sammy Davis Sr. He began a life-long career of entertaining at the age of three, appearing in the vaudeville group in which his parents danced, Will Mastin's Holiday in Dixieland. Two years later, after his parents' divorce, he stayed with his father and officially joined the group. Davis made his movie debut with Ethel Waters in Rufus Jones for President (1933). Throughout the 1930s he toured with the Will Mastin Trio, becoming the central figure in the group, singing, dancing, and playing several instruments.

In 1943 Davis joined the United States Army and served for two years directing shows and touring military installations. After leaving the army he returned to the Will Mastin Trio, which became an established part of the club circuit, playing bills with American entertainers Jack ...

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James Ross Moore

entertainer, was born Florence Winfree in Washington, D.C., the daughter of John Winfree, a carpenter, and Nellie Simons, who did laundry. Educated locally, by age five Mills was winning contests in cakewalking and buck dancing. Her first professional engagement came as Baby Florence Mills in the second company (1902) of the Bert Williams–George William WalkerSons of Ham, singing a song she had learned from its originator, Aida Overton Walker, titled “Miss Hannah from Savannah,” the tale of a high-class African American who had come north.

Mills served a lengthy apprenticeship before becoming an “overnight” sensation in The Plantation Revue in 1922. After several years in vaudeville with the Bonita Company as a “pick” (i.e., a pickaninny), she and her sisters, Olivia and Maude, became the vaudeville Mills Sisters. When this act broke up, Mills joined others until 1914 when ...

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Hilary Mac Austin

Florence Mills was arguably the first black female superstar. According to her contemporaries, she was idolized by a generation of African Americans, particularly in Harlem, and represented for them success, fame, and happiness. A lifelong performer, Mills was born in Washington, DC, the youngest of three sisters. Her parents were John and Nellie Simons Winfrey, both born in slavery. They had migrated from Lynchburg, Virginia, to escape a depression in the tobacco industry. John worked as a day laborer, and Nellie took in laundry. The family lived in one of Washington’s poorest slums, Goat Alley.

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Bernard L. Peterson

actor, producer, and writer of plays and films, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of Alexander Muse and Mary Sales. He was educated at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where he became interested in music and participated in choral groups; although he graduated with a bachelor's degree in International Law in 1911, he immediately embarked on a musical and theatrical career. In 1907 he married Frieda Belle Moore; the marriage was apparently dissolved soon after the birth of their son in 1910.

Muse sang with a hotel employees' quartet in Palm Beach, Florida, for one season. In 1912 he helped organize the Freeman-Harper-Muse Stock Company at the Globe Theater in Jacksonville, in partnership with comedian George Freeman and choreographer Leonard Harper. The company toured in Stranded in Africa in 1912, starring Muse in the role of King Gazu.

By ...

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Steven J. Niven

vaudeville artiste and “Mother of the Blues,” was born Gertrude Pridgett in Columbus, Georgia, the daughter of Ella Allen, an employee of the Georgia Central Railroad, and Thomas Pridgett, whose occupation is unknown. Around 1900, at the age of fourteen, Pridgett made her debut in the Bunch of Blackberries revue at the Springer Opera House in Columbus, one of the biggest theaters in Georgia and a venue that had been graced by, among others, Lillie Langtry and Oscar Wilde. Within two years she was a regular in minstrel tent shows—troupes of singers, acrobats, dancers, and novelty acts—which traveled throughout the South. At one show in Missouri in 1902 she heard a new musical form the blues and incorporated it into her act Although she did not discover or name the blues as legend would later have it Gertrude Pridgett was undeniably one of the pioneers ...

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Rainey is the earliest well-known woman blues singer. Her style, the classic blues, was a female-dominated mixture of folk blues and black professional entertainment that flourished in the 1920s. She was a great vocalist, comedienne, and songwriter; a star in minstrelsy, vaudeville, and recording; a dancer, producer, and theater manager. She sang blues as early as 1902, earning the title “Mother of the Blues,” leading a great tradition of women blues singers from Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie to Big Mama Thornton and Koko Taylor.

Ma Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett in Columbus, Georgia, the second of Thomas and Ella Allen Pridgett’s five children. Her family came from Alabama, and her grandmother may have gone into show business after Emancipation. At the age of fourteen, she debuted in “A Bunch of Blackberries,” a revue at the Springer Opera House in Columbus. In Missouri in 1902 ...

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Hilary Mac Austin

According to Salem Tutt Whitney in his 1920 article “How to Join a Show,” Aida Overton Walker “[b]y force of ability, diligent study, strenuous work, tenacity of purpose and an almost superfluity of talent…climbed to the top-most rung of the theatrical ladder, without a white or colored peer in her line. And then, she ran afoul of the color line” (Krasner2002, 71).

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Bill Egan

entertainer. Egbert Austin “Bert” Williams was born in Antigua, West Indies, to Frederick Williams and Julia Moncuer Williams. His paternal grandfather was Antigua's Danish consul; Williams also had Spanish and African ancestry. In 1885 his family moved to Riverside, California. Graduating from Riverside High School, Williams attended Stanford University in the early 1890s. To cover expenses he played in minstrel shows at lumber camps. In 1893 he met George Walker in San Francisco and they formed an act, Walker as the flash dandy and Williams as his shambling sidekick. In 1895 they obtained a brief engagement with John Isham'sOctoroons, billing themselves as “The Two Real Coons.” Finding that in blackface he could “see myself as another person,” Williams developed his talent as a clown. Brief exposure in a flop show, The Gold Bug brought Williams and Walker a New York music hall engagement with good ...