Wladziu (or Vładziu) Valentino Liberace (May 16, 1919 – February 4, 1987), best known simply as Liberace, was an American pianist and vocalist.
In a career that spanned four decades of concerts, recordings, motion pictures, television and endorsements, Liberace became world-renowned. During the 1950s–1970s he was the highest-paid entertainer in the world and embraced a lifestyle of flamboyant excess both on and off the stage.
Liberace, known as "Lee" to his friends and "Walter" to family, was born in West Allis, Wisconsin, to Frances Zuchowska (August 31, 1892 – November 1, 1980), who was of Polish descent, and Salvatore ("Sam") Liberace (December 9, 1885 – April 1, 1977), an emigrant from Formia, Italy. He had a twin who died at birth. He was born with a caul, which in his family, as in many societies, was taken as a sign of genius and an exceptional future. Liberace's father was a musician who played the French horn in bands and movie theaters but sometimes was a factory worker or laborer. While his father encouraged music in the family, his mother was not musical and thought music lessons and a record player were unaffordable luxuries, causing family disputes. Liberace later stated, "My dad's love and respect for music created in him a deep determination to give as his legacy to the world, a family of musicians dedicated to the advancement of the art".
Liberace began playing the piano at age four. His father took his children to concerts to further expose them to music, but he was also a taskmaster demanding high standards from the children in practice and performance. Liberace's prodigious talent was in evidence early. He memorized difficult pieces by age seven. He studied the technique of the famous Polish pianist and later family friend Ignacy Paderewski and at eight met him backstage at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee. "I was intoxicated by the joy I got from the great virtuoso's playing. My dreams were filled with fantasies of following his footsteps…Inspired and fired with ambition, I began to practice with a fervor that made my previous interest in the piano look like neglect."
The Great Depression was hard on the family financially. The early-teenage Liberace also suffered from a speech problem and from the taunts of neighborhood children who mocked his avoidance of sports and his fondness for the piano and for cooking. Liberace focused fiercely on his piano playing and blossomed under the instruction of music teacher Florence Kelly who guided his musical development for ten years. He gained experience playing popular music in theaters, on local radio, for dancing classes, for clubs, and for weddings. He played jazz with a school group called the "Mixers" in 1934, then other groups later. Liberace also performed in cabarets and strip clubs, and even though his parents did not approve, he was earning a tidy living during hard times. For a while he adopted the stage name "Walter Busterkeys". He also showed an interest in draftsmanship, design, and painting, and he became a fastidious dresser and follower of fashion. By then, he was already showing the knack of turning his eccentricities into attention-getting virtues, and attained popularity at school, though mostly as an object of comic relief.