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Billy Eckstine picture, image, poster
Billy Eckstine

Date of birth : 1914-07-08
Date of death : 1993-03-08
Birthplace : Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Nationality : American
Category : Famous Figures
Last modified : 2011-11-10

William Clarence Eckstine was an American singer of ballads and a bandleader of the swing era. Eckstine's smooth baritone and distinctive vibrato broke down barriers throughout the 1940s, first as leader of the original bop big-band, then as the first romantic black male in popular music.

Handsome and elegant, Billy Eckstine was one of the nation's most popular singers in the years between the end of World War II and the advent of rock and roll. Eckstine achieved renown primarily as a solo crooner whose "vocal lower register was often a sound of rare beauty," according to George T. Simon in The Big Bands; however, Eckstine's contribution to modern jazz as a band leader is also significant. In The Pleasures of Jazz, Leonard Feather writes that the Billy Eckstine Band, founded in 1944 and disbanded in 1946, was "the first big bebop band, musically apocalyptic but too far ahead of the public taste." Arnold Shaw also comments in Black Popular Music in America that Eckstine's orchestra--staffed by such giants as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan--"left a permanent mark on Jazz history." Eckstine's own mark on music history rivals that of his contemporaries Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and Nat "King" Cole. As Simon notes in The Best of the Music Makers, Eckstine's fame at its zenith in the early-to mid-1950s "equaled that of any popular singer of his time. First dubbed 'The Sepia Sinatra,' then 'The Great Mr. B.,' Billy Eckstine had a host of imitators, set trends in male fashions, and was pursued by bobby soxers. Responsible for a new and influential style of romantic singing, he was also the first black singer to become a national sex symbol and to make the front cover of Life magazine."

He grew up in Pittsburgh and in Washington, D.C., where he attended Armstrong High School. His parents emphasized education, so after high school he enrolled in college, first at St. Paul Normal and Industrial School in Lawrenceville, Virginia, then at Howard University in the nation's capitol. After only a year of college he won an amateur music contest at the Howard Theater and decided to sing full time. From 1934 until 1939, Eckstine--who changed the spelling of his name because a club owner thought it looked "too Jewish"--performed as a vocalist with small dance bands in the mid-Atlantic region. He joined the Earl Hines Orchestra as a soloist in 1939, learned to play the trumpet, and met many of the pioneers of modern jazz. Eckstine's first hit was "Jelly, Jelly," released in 1940. He followed that success with other blues tunes and romantic ballads such as "Somehow," "You Don't Know What Love Is," and "Skylark." In 1943 Eckstine left the Hines group to try to form his own band. The next year he assembled an impressive ensemble of talented musicians for the Billy Eckstine Band. In addition to Parker, Davis, Vaughan, and Gillespie, Eckstine hired Fats Navarro, Gene Ammons, Dexter Gordon, and drummer Art Blakey. Touring the South in 1944, the band grossed $100,000 in its first ten weeks.

Eckstine's band was full of artists who were seeking new forms of musical expression. They introduced rhythmic and melodic innovations that transformed the standard jazz of the 1920s--primarily dancing music with a steady beat--to bebop, a music of offbeat accents and orchestral improvisations. Although Hines's and other big bands had experimented with the new sounds, Eckstine's was the first group to highlight them; hence, he is credited with forming the first big bop band. Unfortunately, bebop did not provide the best formula to set off a singer, and according to Simon in The Big Bands, Eckstine's recordings "sounded so bad that they made few ... converts." Nor was it easy to meet the large payroll and unify so many unconventional temperaments.

After only two years Eckstine disbanded his orchestra and returned to solo performing. Simon notes in The Best of the Music Makers that bebop's loss "was Eckstine's gain. Unfettered by the band, he soon produced a string of hits, mostly stylized, smooth romantic ballads." The sensuous music found a mainstream audience, and the stylish Eckstine, who headlined with the George Shearing Quintet and the Count Basie orchestra, became a fashion trend-setter. By 1950 he was MGM's top-selling popular singer and was drawing record-breaking crowds at the Oasis Club in Los Angeles and New York's Paramount Theater. On November 11, 1950, he gave a solo concert at Carnegie Hall, leading a New York Herald Tribune critic to write: "Mr. Eckstine begins with considerably more voice than the average crooner, and therefore he is not driven to the usual faking procedures popularized by others. He sings, for the most part, on pitch, cleanly, clearly, and with the standard breast-beating and catch-in-the-voice technique that seem the stock-in-trade of novelty crooners. But there is real vocal color to his work, and it is a color which he varies according to the expressive dictates of the song."

As a black man, Eckstine was not immune to the prejudice that characterized the 1950s. Quincy Jones is quoted in The Pleasures of Jazz as saying of Eckstine: "They never let him become the sex symbol he might have become. If he'd been white, the sky would have been the limit. As it was, he didn't have his own radio or TV show, much less a movie career. He had to fight the system, so things never quite fell into place." Jones's assessment is accurate; denied the television and movie exposure his fame seemed to warrant, Eckstine gradually returned to semi-obscurity. He has never lacked for work in Las Vegas, Miami, and California--he still performs regularly--but the international acclaim that still greets his contemporaries has passed him by. Eckstine still finds an audience, though, and he also has time to indulge his passions for golf and classical music. In The Best of the Music Makers, Simon concludes that the years have been kind to Eckstine, keeping his voice clear and his looks youthful. "Fads don't last," writes Simon, "but talent does."

In 1986, Billy recorded his final album Billy Eckstine Sings with Benny Carter. Eckstine died on March 8, 1993, aged 78.

Selective Works:
-I Stay in the Mood for You Deluxe.
-I'll Wait and Pray Deluxe.
-She's Got the Blues for Sale National.
-In the Still of the Night National.
-Cool Breeze National.
-Prisoner of Love National.
-Fools Rush In MGM.
-Everything I Have Is Yours MGM, 1947.
-You Go to My Head MGM.
-Caravan MGM, 1949.
-My Foolish Heart MGM, 1950.
-I Apologise MGM, 1951.
-Gentle on My Mind Motown.
-Stormy Enterprise.
-Senior Soul Enterprise.
-Billy Eckstine's Greatest Hits Polydor.
-Also recorded Feel the Warm, If She Walked into My Life, The Legendary Big Band of Billy Eckstine, The Soul Sessions, Prime of My Life 1963, For the Love of Ivy 1967, and My Way 1967.

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