Oliver Hardy as born in Harlem, Georgia. It wasn't until many years later that he adopted his father's name, Oliver, as his own, as a tribute to the father that he never knew. His parents were of English and Scottish descent. His father, Oliver, was a Confederate veteran wounded at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. After the war he worked as a foreman for the Georgia Southern Railroad, supervising the building of a rail line between Augusta and Madison. Their marriage took place on March 12, 1890, it was the second marriage for the widow, Emily, and the third for Oliver, who died less than a year after Norvell's birth.
Young Norvell was not an easy child to raise. He was not interested in education, although he acquired an early interest in music and theater, possibly from his mother's tenants. He ran away from home to join a theatrical group, and later ran away from a boarding school near Atlanta. His mother recognized his talent for singing, and sent him to Atlanta to study music and voice with a prominent musician, but Norvell skipped his lessons to sing in a vaudeville house. He was sent to a military college, but ran away from there, also. After toying with college and the idea of studying law, he decided to follow his dream of a singing career.