At the age of 10, the young Sousa began violin lessons, later studying music theory and composition. By the time he was 13 he could play a number of band instruments and already was conducting his own 7-piece orchestra. At that same time, his father, John Antonio Sousa, himself a musician and concert trombonist, in order to keep his son from running away to join a circus band, enlisted him in the United States Marine Corps Band...so he could keep an eye on him!
Amongst other accomplishments between 1876 and 1889, Sousa joined an orchestra conducted by Jacques Offenbach at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia; began composing comic operettas; secured a contract with W.F. Shaw, his first publisher; created and conducted orchestrations for Gilbert & Sullivan's early hits, The Sorcerer and HMS Pinafore; met Jennie Bellis, the young woman who would eventually become his wife and mother of his three children; and composed one of his greatest marches, "The Washington Post," for the newspaper of the same name, thus starting an international dance craze -- “The Two-Step” -- and watching the tune become the #1 hit in both America and Europe, totally eclipsing the waltz as the standard of ballroom dancing around the world for many years, until it was unseated by “The Fox Trot.”
El Capitan, the most popular of his comic operettas, composed in 1895, ran for over four years and became a hit in Europe and Canada as well. His other operettas fared less well, and he eventually turned his attention to his band, for which he composed many marches (see accompanying page, "Oh Mr. Sousa, we didn't know...").
During his twelve years in the White House as leader of the Marine Band, Sousa served under five presidents: Hayes; Garfield; Arthur; Cleveland; Harrison.
At the peak of his popularity, he was playing to crowds in excess of 150,000 and constantly touring, both nationally and internationally. He literally conducted until the very last day of his life, at age 77...and as though self-predicted, the last piece conducted under his baton was his own beloved "Stars and Stripes Forever," which in 1987 became designated as the official national march of The United States of America.