John Philip Sousa ( November 6, 1854 – March 6, 1932) was an American composer and conductor of the late Romantic era, known primarily for American military and patriotic marches. Because of his mastery of march composition, he is known as "The March King" or the "American March King" due to his British counterpart Kenneth J. Alford also being known by the former nickname. Among his best-known marches are "The Liberty Bell", "The Thunderer", "The Washington Post", "Semper Fidelis" (Official March of the United States Marine Corps), and "The Stars and Stripes Forever" (National March of the United States of America).
Sousa's father was of Portuguese and Spanish descent, his mother of Hessian ancestry. Sousa began his career playing violin and studying music theory and composition under John Esputa and George Felix Benkert. His father enlisted him in the United States Marine Band as an apprentice in 1868. After departing the band in 1875, Sousa learned to conduct. From 1880 until his death, he focused exclusively on conducting and the writing of music. He eventually rejoined the Marine Band and served there for 12 years as director. On leaving the Marine Band, Sousa organized his own band. He toured Europe and Australia and developed the sousaphone, a large brass instrument similar to the tuba. On the outbreak of World War I, Sousa was commissioned as a lieutenant and led the Naval Reserve Band in Illinois. Following his tenure, he returned to conduct the Sousa Band until his death in 1932. In the 1920s he was promoted to lieutenant commander in the naval reserve, but never saw active service again.
Sousa served two periods of service in the United States Marine Corps. He first enlisted on June 9, 1868 at the age of 13 as an apprentice musician. In official records, his initial rank was listed as "boy". He re-enlisted on July 8, 1872 and was promoted to musician. He left the Marine Corps in 1875 at the age of 20.
His second period of Marine service was from 1880 to 1892. During this period he was the leader of the Marine Band in Washington, D.C. (Some sources state that Sousa served with the rank of Sergeant Major and was eventually promoted to Warrant Officer but this is erroneous as the leader of the band was a separate rank from sergeant major and the Marine Corps did not have warrant officers until 1916.) Sousa's salary as "leader of the band" (his official Marine Corps rank) was $83 per month which compared to a second lieutenant at $115.67 per month and a sergeant major with 20 years of service at $30 per month.
Under his leadership, the Marine Band became the premier military band in the United States. The Columbia Phonograph Company produced 60 cylinders of recordings of the Marine Band conducted by Sousa. The recordings, along with two tours in 1891 and 1892, led to Sousa becoming nationally famous. During his time with the Marine Band, Sousa composed several of his famous marches including The Washington Post, The Thunderer and Semper Fidelis which remain staples of marching bands to this day.
In July 1892, Sousa requested, and received, a discharge from the Marine Corps to pursue a financially promising civilian career as a band leader. He conducted a farewell concert at the White House on July 30, 1892 and was discharged from the Marine Corps the next day.
On May 31, 1917, shortly after the United States declared war on Germany and entered World War I, Sousa was commissioned as a lieutenant in the United States Naval Reserve. At that time, Sousa was 62 years old which was then the mandatory retirement age for Navy officers. During the war, Sousa led the Navy Band at the Great Lakes Naval Station near Chicago, Illinois. Being independently wealthy at this point in his life, he donated most of his naval salary, except a token $1 per month, to the Sailors' and Marines' Relief Fund.
Sousa was discharged from active duty after the war's end in November 1918. He returned to conducting his own band but continued to wear his naval uniform for many of his concerts and other public appearances. In the early 1920s, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve but did not return to active duty.
For this service during the war, Sousa received the World War I Victory Medal. By right of his wartime service, he was elected as a Veteran Companion of the Military Order of Foreign Wars.
Sousa was decorated with the palms of the Order of Public Instruction of Portugal. He also received the Royal Victorian Medal from King Edward VII of the United Kingdom in December 1901 for conducting a private birthday concert for the Queen Alexandra.
During World War II, the Liberty ship SS John Philip Sousa was named after him. The ship's bell is still used by the Marine Band in concert.
Sousa has a star in his honor at 1500 Vine Street on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In 1976, Sousa was inducted into the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. In 1998, he was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame in Cincinnati, Ohio.
The band hall of the Marine Band was dedicated as “John Philip Sousa Band Hall.”
In 1987, an act of Congress named The Stars and Stripes Forever as the National March of the United States.