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Beloved by hausfraus who never questioned his romantic preferences, Liberace was one of the most popular performers of the first three post-World War II decades even though he never came close to a hit record after the mid-'50s. But his absurdly over-the-top piano flamboyance undoubtedly inspired rock 'n' rollers from Little Richard to Elton John. Not bad for a half-Italian/half-Polish boy from suburban Milwaukee. Born in 1919, he had followed his French horn-playing father's footsteps into local orchestras by his teens and soon also dabbled in jazz and played a sort of classical class clown in less reputable cabarets. He bounced from entertaining troops overseas to New York and then L.A., and by the '40s, as he intentionally deflated the symphonic repertoire with lowbrow kiddie tunes and comedy, his career took off. His glammed-out concert accouterments -- candelabrum, pianos, ornate outfits -- upped the ante and matched his stage shtick. He personified Vegas and performed privately for moguls and presidents. A hugely popular TV show, starting in the '50s, sealed the deal -- it's said no entertainer of his time had more earning power. In 1987, he died of HIV-related complications.
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