Percy Grainger was born George Percy Grainger at Brighton, Victoria, Australia, on 8 July 1882, the son of John Harry Grainger (1855-1917), architect and engineer, and his wife, Rosa Annie (Rose) Aldridge (1861-1922). He spent his childhood in Melbourne, Victoria, where he was privately educated under the guidance of his musically gifted mother. He received supplementary lessons in languages, art, elocution and drama, and the piano. His early interest in classical legends and Icelandic sagas influenced him for the rest of his life.
By 1895, Grainger's obvious talent with the piano led him to pursue studies in Germany. At the Hoch Conservatorium he socialised with several older British students and fell under the spell of Rudyard Kipling, settings of whose verses he worked on between 1898 and 1956. From 1901 to 1914, he made a living as a concert pianist and private teacher in London, undertaking frequent tours of northern Europe and two lengthy Antipodean visits. During the first half of his residence in London, when often fulfilling subsidiary musical roles, Grainger also depended upon sponsorship by such leading musicians as Sir Charles Villiers Stanford and Sir Henry Wood. In 1911 he changed his name to Percy Aldridge Grainger.
Like much of the English musical establishment of this period, Grainger became fascinated with folk song and set out to collect songs and tunes, initially in Lincolnshire, in 1905. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Grainger became an enthusiastic supporter of the Edison Phonograph as a means of collecting and began using it at Brigg - a small market town in North Lincolnshire, England - the following year, recording the now legendary Joseph Taylor, whom he brought to London to record songs for the Gramophone Company (later to become HMV) in 1908. Grainger's 'Collecting with the phonograph', Journal of the Folk Song Society, 12 (1908), 164, remains a crucial work both from a technical and historical perspective. He went on to use the instrument in ten other English counties (plus London), the vast majority of recordings being from Lincolnshire and Gloucestershire.
With the outbreak of war in 1914, Grainger and his mother moved to New York. He took up American citizenship in 1918, while serving in a US army band, and in 1921 settled in White Plains, New York, where he saw out his days. The years 1914 to 1922 constituted the peak of Grainger's musical career. As a pianist he entered into lucrative piano-roll and gramophone recording contracts, and performed as a Steinway artist across the country with leading orchestras and conductors. His setting of a morris dance tune, Country Gardens (borrowed from Cecil Sharp's collected version at Headington Quarry, Oxford) became an instant hit on its publication in 1919. Through dozens of arrangements, it remains his best-known work.
He gave his last official American concert tour in 1948, but continued, despite worsening health from 1952, to give occasional lectures and educational concerts until he was in his late 70s. Grainger died in White Plains Hospital, New York, on 20 February 1961. He was buried alongside his mother in the West Terrace Cemetery, Adelaide, on 2 March 1961.
Most of his papers reside at the Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne, together with his was cylinder recordings. Acetate copies made under the supervision of Grainger are at the Library of Congress, Washington. Hectograph copies of his folk music transcriptions are to be found at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library (VWML) and The British Library, London.