William Grant Still was born in Woodville, Mississippi. He was the son of two school teachers. But when he was very little, William’s father died, so he and his mother went to live with her mother in Little Rock, Arkansas.
William grew up listening to his grandmother tell stories about her life as a slave on a plantation in Georgia. And he also grew up hearing her sing spirituals that she learned as a child. Later on, those stories and spirituals found their way into his music.
When William was nine, his mother remarried. His stepfather loved music, too. He bought a phonograph, with which he introduced William to all kinds of music he’d never heard before, including opera. William took violin lessons when he was young, and then taught himself to play the cello, clarinet, oboe and French horn.
Still went to Wilberforce University in Ohio to study medicine, but that didn’t last long. Still began his music career in Columbus, Ohio. Then, the great blues performer W.C. Handy invited him to come to Memphis play with his band, and to do musical arrangements for them. That’s when the blues started finding their way into Still’s compositions.
William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony was the first symphony by a black composer to be performed by a major orchestra. And he was the first African-American to conduct a major American orchestra. But Still earned his living writing background music for radio and television — shows like Gunsmoke, Perry Mason, and The Three Stooges. In addition to symphonies, Still’s classical compositions include chamber music, operas, and ballets.