At 18, Sousa began to play violin in various theater orchestras. In 1880, Sousa was appointed leader of the Marine Corps Band, which he would serve for 12 years, under five presidents. He now began to hit his stride with his own marches, turning out such classics as Semper Fidelis, The Washington Post, The Thunderer, and High School Cadets. In 1892 Sousa, resigning his position with the Marine Corps, organized his own band, known simply as Sousa's Band. Through national, European, and world tours, the band's success was nothing short of a phenomenon, Sousa receiving many honors and decorations from the royal families of Great Britain and Europe.
He continued turning out his series of comic operas, including the highly successful El capitan (1895). From his pen flowed songs, symphonic poems, and more marches, this period seeing The Liberty Bell (1893), King Cotton (1895), Hands Across the Sea (1899) and, most notably, The Stars and Stripes Forever (1897).
With the entry of the United States into World War I, however, Sousa laid aside civilian activity and assumed command of all naval bands. In 1920, he reorganized his band and resumed touring. Sousa died while en route to conduct a high school band in Reading, PA.
Among his other achievements was his role as a founder of ASCAP. He also helped develop the sousaphone, a large tuba which features in parade bands. Ultimately, his compositions are his monument. But particularly it is the marches which endure. Sousa was not afraid to invest his marches with beautiful melody and unusual harmonies, placing them above being merely parade music. Sousa continued to explore within his chosen field until the end and many from his final decade such as The Gridiron Club and Sesquicentennial Exposition are remarkable for their inventiveness and vitality. The composer himself mused upon what constitutes the perfect march, stating that "it should make a man with a wooden leg step out." In virtually all of his creations in this field, Sousa passed this standard with flying colors.