The “March King,” John Philip Sousa, was America’s most successful bandmaster and a universally beloved composer. Born November 6, 1854 in Washington, DC, Sousa studied violin, theory and composition in the DC area. At the age of 13 he was enlisted as an apprentice musician in the U. S. Marine Band, a position he held for some seven years.
After his discharge from the Marine Corps, Sousa remained in Washington for a time, conducting and playing the violin. He toured with several traveling theater orchestras and moved, in 1876, to Philadelphia. While on tour in St. Louis, he received a telegram offering him the leadership of the Marine Band in Washington. He accepted and reported for duty on Oct. 1, 1880, becoming the band’s 17th Leader.
During his twelve years as Director of The Marine Band, Sousa greatly enhanced the reputation of the band through musical excellence, the first tours of the band, and of course with the ever-growing popularity of his military marches. In 1888, he wrote “Semper Fidelis.” Dedicated to “the officers and men of the Marine Corps,” it is traditionally known as the “official” march of the Marine Corps.
In 1892, Sousa resigned his position with the Marine band to form his own civilian band. Over the next 39 years, this incredible band toured coast to coast annually, made four European tours, and one world tour. Unequalled in success and popularity, the Sousa Band earned a reputation as the finest concert band of its time, and entertained hundreds of thousands through its concert performances.
John Philip Sousa died on March 6, 1932, at Reading, Pa., where he was scheduled to conduct the Ringgold Band. His body was brought to his native Washington to lie in state in the Band Hall at Marine Barracks. Four days later, two companies of Marines and Sailors, the Marine Band, and honorary pall-bearers from the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps headed the funeral cortege from the Marine Barracks to Congressional Cemetery.
Perhaps the most significant tribute to Sousa’s influence on American culture, “The Stars and Stripes Forever” was designated as the national march of the United States on Dec. 11, 1987.