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9 Famous Artists Who Began as Street Performers

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The Spanish word buscar, which means to seek, gave us the term “busker.” The art of busking, or street performing, gave us these household names.

1. Rod Stewart

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According to the man himself, there are only two things Rod Stewart can do: play football (yes, soccer) and sing. When it came to doing one professionally, music became the only choice after he failed to make the Brentford F.C. team. While the fame, money, and model wives would suggest that it all worked out for Stewart, it didn’t always seem that way. After a disappointing experience with his first band, The Raiders, Stewart took his then undesired voice to the streets of London, where he teamed up with English folk musician Wizz Jones. Together, they traveled throughout Europe playing music and sleeping under bridges until Stewart was deported from Spain for vagrancy. Ultimately, that vagrant ended up selling 100 million records worldwide.

2. Tracy Chapman

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While a student at Tufts University, Tracy Chapman would sing and play her guitar in nearby Harvard Square—a place so desired by buskers for its heavy foot traffic that people have to obtain a permit from the Cambridge Arts Council to perform there. Through playing the streets and various coffee houses in the area, Chapman gained a fan in Brian Koppelman, a fellow Tufts student whose father, Charles Koppelman, was in charge of a record label. The elder Koppelman introduced her to influential people in the music business, including producer David Kershenbaum, and in 1987, right after graduating, she was signed to Elektra Records. By 1988, she had a critically-acclaimed album and was performing for Nelson Mandela at his 70th birthday tribute concert.

3. Robin Williams

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If Robin Williams seems like the kind of person you’d try and avoid while walking around New York City, that’s because, at one point, he was. While studying in an advanced program at the prestigious Juilliard School—only two students were accepted into it: he and Christopher Reeve—Williams worked as a mime outside of The Museum of Modern Art for some extra cash. Everything came up roses and giant bags of money for Williams though, as he’d go on to win an Academy Award, Emmys, Golden Globes, Grammys, all for projects that involved him talking.

4. Eddie Izzard

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British comedian and actor Eddie Izzard says he has known he wanted to be a performer since he was seven years old, but it wasn’t until he began studying accounting at the University of Sheffield that he tried his hand at comedy. Along with a school friend, he regularly performed in Covent Garden, a district in the West End of London. Their partnership didn’t last long, but Izzard would spend a great deal of the '80s performing on the streets of Europe. In the early '90s, he began to gain some notoriety in the British comedy community and in 2000 he won two Emmys for his one-man show “Eddie Izzard: Dress to Kill,” which was produced by fellow former street performer Robin Williams.

5. B.B. King

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Before he was “B.B. King,” Riley B. King was just a kid playing his guitar on the streets of Mississippi for change. King would perform in up to four different towns a night. Eventually he made his way to Memphis, which was home to numerous blues and jazz legends, including his cousin Bukka White. While there, he performed amongst his fellow greats and landed a gig as a radio DJ. Needing a new name for the airwaves, King went with “Beale Street Blues Boy,” a nod to the music-filled Beale Street in downtown Memphis. That moniker was shortened to “Blues Boy” and then, simply “B.B.” Now, everyone knows B.B. and his guitar Lucille.

6. Pierce Brosnan

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Shaken and stirred by moving from Ireland to England in his youth, Brosnan couldn’t wait to get out of his London classroom—where his nickname was “Irish”—and into the art world. While training to be a commercial illustrator, he attended a workshop where a fire eater taught him the craft. Soon enough, he had one of the hottest acts on the streets and caught the attention of a circus agent. That stint let to classes at Drama Centre London, which got his acting off the ground and eventually into an Aston Martin.

7. Bernie Mac

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You can’t just wake up one morning and call yourself one of the “Original Kings of Comedy.” OK, you can, but you’d be living a lie if you didn't have the credentials to back it up like Bernie Mac did. Before the major motion pictures and network sitcom, Mac was telling jokes throughout the South Side of Chicago. The two years he spent playing the streets made the man fearless; you may remember him beginning his first set on HBO’s Def Comedy Jam by telling the audience, “I ain’t scared of you motherf***ers.” In 2012, a portion of West 69th Street in the Englewood neighborhood where he grew up was honorarily named "Bernie Mac Street."

8. Jewel

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The pride of Homer, Alaska, Jewel Kilcher had just finished her first semester at a fine arts school in Michigan when she decided to travel the country as a street performer. With her guitar, the four chords she knew how to play on it, and a skinning knife for protection, Jewel managed to make it as far as Mexico. After graduating, Jewel returned to drifting and lived out of her car. She played coffee shops around San Diego until she signed with Atlantic Records. Her debut album, Pieces of You, would go on to sell 12 million copies in the United States alone. Hopefully counting all of that money wasn’t too much for those small hands of hers.

9. Benjamin Franklin

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Author, diplomat, founding father, inventor, printer, postmaster, scientist, street performer—Ben Franklin was pretty much everything but president. As a youngster in Boston, Franklin would perform songs and read poems he wrote that commented on current events, which he'd then sell prints of to his fellow colonists. His meddling father didn't want his son busking around town so he put an end to little Ben's street act once and for all. After growing up under that regime, it’s no wonder he became such an advocate for free speech.

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LeVar Burton Is Legally Allowed to Say His Reading Rainbow Catchphrase
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It’s hard to imagine the original Reading Rainbow without LeVar Burton, but in August, the New York public broadcasting network WNED made it very clear who owned the rights to the program. By saying his old catchphrase from his hosting days, “but you don’t have to take my word for it” on his current podcast, WNED claimed Burton was infringing on their intellectual property. Now, Vulture reports that the case has been settled and Burton is now allowed to drop the phrase when and wherever he pleases.

The news came out in an recent interview with the actor and TV personality. “All settled, but you don’t have to take my word for it,” he told Vulture. “It’s all good. It’s all good. I can say it.”

The conflict dates back to 2014, when Burton launched a Kickstarter campaign to revive the show without WNED’s consent. Prior to that, the network and Burton’s digital reading company RRKidz had made a licensing deal where they agreed to split the profits down the middle if a new show was ever produced. Burton’s unauthorized crowdfunding undid those negotiations, and tensions between the two parties have been high ever since. The situation came to a head when Burton started using his famous catchphrase on his LeVar Burton Reads podcast, which centers around him reading short fiction in the same vein as his Reading Rainbow role. By doing this, WNED alleged he was aiming to “control and reap the benefits of Reading Rainbow's substantial goodwill.”

Though he’s no longer a collaborator with WNED, Burton can at least continue to say “but you don’t have to take my word for it” without fearing legal retribution. WNED is meanwhile "working on the next chapter of Reading Rainbow" without their original star, and Burton tells Vulture he looks “forward to seeing what they do with the brand next."

[h/t Vulture]

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literature
25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes
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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. ON GOD

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. ON THE WORLD AS A STAGE

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. ON FORGIVENESS

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. ON GOOD VERSUS BAD

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. ON GETTING ADVICE

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. ON HAPPINESS

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. ON CYNICISM

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. ON SINCERITY

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. ON MONEY

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. ON LIFE'S GREATEST TRAGEDIES

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. ON HARD WORK

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. ON LIVING WITHIN ONE'S MEANS

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. ON TRUE FRIENDS

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. ON MOTHERS

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. ON FASHION

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. ON BEING TALKED ABOUT

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. ON GENIUS

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. ON MORALITY

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. ON RELATIONSHIPS

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. ON THE DEFINITION OF A "GENTLEMAN"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. ON BOREDOM

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. ON AGING

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. ON MEN AND WOMEN

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. ON POETRY

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

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