Sun Ra & His Outer Space Arkestra
For decades, very little was known about Sun Ra's early life; much of it was obscured by Sun Ra himself: he routinely gave evasive, contradictory or seemingly nonsensical answers to personal questions and even denied his birth name. His birthday for years was unknown, with years ranging from 1910 to 1918 being claimed for his birth. Only a few years before his death, the date of Sun Ra's birth remained a mystery: Jim Macnie's notes for Blue Delight (1989) could only state that Sun Ra was believed to be about 75 years old. However, Ra's biographer John F. Szwed was able to uncover a wealth of information about Ra's early life, including confirming a May 22, 1914 birth date. Named after the popular vaudeville stage magician Black Herman, who had deeply impressed his mother, Sun Ra would speculate, only half in jest, that he was distantly related to Elijah Poole, later famous as Elijah Muhammed, leader of the Nation of Islam. He was nicknamed "Sonny" from his childhood, had an older sister and half-brother, and was doted upon by his mother and grandmother.

Sun Ra was a skilled pianist as a child. By 11 or 12 years old he was writing original songs, and was able to sight read sheet music. Birmingham was an important stop for touring musicians, and he saw famous musicians like Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, along with less-famous performers who were often just as talented as their better-known peers, with Sun Ra once stating "the world let down a lot of good musicians". In his teenage years, Sun Ra demonstrated prodigious musical talent: many times, according to acquaintances, he would see big band performances and produce full transcriptions of the bands' songs from memory. By his mid-teens Sun Ra was performing semi-professionally as a solo pianist, or as a member of various ad hoc jazz and R&B groups. He attended Birmingham's Industrial High School where he studied under famed music teacher John T. "Fess" Whatley, a demanding disciplinarian who was widely respected and whose classes produced many professional musicians.

At ten years old Sun Ra joined the Knights of Pythias, and remained a member until he graduated from high school. His family was deeply religious but was not formally associated with any Christian church or sect. Ra had few or no close friends in high school but was remembered as kind-natured and quiet, an honor roll student, and a voracious reader. The Black Masonic Lodge was one of the few places in Birmingham where African-Americans had essentially unlimited access to books, and the Lodge's many books on Freemasonry and other esoteric concepts made a large impression on him.

Also by his teens, Sun Ra suffered from cryptorchidism, a chronic testicular hernia that left him with a nearly constant discomfort that sometimes flared into severe pain. Some suggest that the condition left him with a sense of shame and increased his sense of isolation.
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