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8.120687 - ECKSTINE, Billy: Yours To Command (1950-1952)
BILLY ECKSTINE Vol.2
‘Yours To Command’ Original Recordings 1950-1952
Distinctive is the adjective that best describes one of the most imitated, yet essentially most inimitable of the jazz-singers who, during the mid-1940s transformed himself, chameleon-like, from aspiring bebop bandleader and promoter into the sartorially elegant ‘Mr B’. The first Afro-American pop idol of real substance, he set a trend for other black stars appearing before white audiences when to do so was more radical than commonplace. The charismatic, multi-talented Billy (who apart from winning world fame with that unmistakeable baritonal vibrato was also at various stages in his career trumpeter, trombonist and guitarist) was born Clarence William Eckstein in Pittsburgh, Penn-sylvania, on 8 July 1914. He made his singing début aged eleven at a church bazaar, and also took piano lessons, but had no formal vocal training. Obsessed as a lad with football, he was the recipient of an scholarship to St Paul’s University, Lawrenceville, and until he broke his collarbone looked set for a career in athletics.
Imposing in speaking-voice and stage presence, from the early 1930s onwards Billy worked variously as a vocalist and MC in clubs in Washington and other venues in the East and Midwest until 1936, when he returned to Pittsburgh. The following year he was singing in clubs in Buffalo and Detroit and worked his way to Chicago where he became resident vocalist at the De Liso, in 1938. There he was first heard by pianist Earl Hines (1903-83) who made him principal vocalist with his bigband, in late 1939. Eckstine stayed with the Hines outfit for four years, specialising in blues vocals (“Jelly, Jelly” became something of a theme number) and occasionally doubling on trumpet, which he had learned to play in spare moments during the band’s tours. The Hines Orchestra became a renowned ‘prep school’ for modern jazz luminaries, including Dizzy Gillespie, and through Eckstine’s influence Hines hired several younger talents, notably Charlie Parker and vocalist Sarah Vaughan, whom he had heard at an amateur night at the New York Apollo.
By 1943 having quit Hines, Eckstine almost immediately embarked on a solo career at New York’s Onyx Club, but at the instigation of his agent Budd Johnson, in June 1944 he formed his short-lived but influential (and since highly acclaimed) big-band. A large-scale jazzband struggling like a dinosaur for survival at the tail-end of the Swing Era, this enterprise was nonetheless monumentally important in the development of bebop, for during the three years of its activity its ranks nurtured the talents of Gillespie and Parker, Gene Ammons, Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Fats Navarro and Lucky Thompson, not to mention Sarah Vaughan and Lena Horne.
During 1945-46, apart from leading his band and penning various characteristic numbers in blues idiom of his own composition (notably ‘Blowing The Blues Away’ and ‘Lonesome Lover Blues’) Billy clocked up the first in a long series of US popular hits as a cult soloist, first for National, then for MGM. In 1945 he recorded his first hit, a million-selling revival of ‘A Cottage For Sale’ which reached No.8 in the US pop charts and by January 1946 had repeated this success with another golden-disc in a revival of ‘Prisoner Of Love’, a number which had earlier proved a hit for its composer, Russ Columbo, in 1932. In 1947 Eckstine fronted his own jazz septet but by 1948, bolstered by a lucrative five-year MGM contract, his activities as a jazz-derived pop soloist having already become his mainstay, he disbanded.
Between 1949 and 1953 ‘The Fabulous Mr B’ held the status of America’s most popular vocalist. In 1949 his hits included ‘Somehow’ and a revival of the 1930 standard ‘Body And Soul’; in 1950 ‘Sitting By The Window’, I Wanna Be Loved (US No.7) and another million-seller (consecutively his third with ‘My Foolish Heart’ and, in 1951, a further Golden Disc with ‘I Apologize’ (a revival of a 1931-vintage Bing Crosby vehicle) a No.26 cover-version of ‘Be My Love’ (the Oscar-nomination introduced by Mario Lanza in MGM’s 1950 film-musical Toast Of New Orleans) and at No.10 If (a resurrection of a 1934 number by English songwriter Tolchard Evans). Covers of numbers from contemporary MGM films singled out for the distinctive Eckstine treatment included I Left My Hat In Haiti (from MGM’s Royal Wedding), Pandora (inspired by Pandora And The Flying Dutchman) and Because You’re Mine (Oscar-nominated title of the 1952 musical starring Mario Lanza), while other ‘tailored’ material included Enchanted Land (an adaptation of ‘The Song of the Indian Guest’ from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Sadko, otherwise better known as ‘Song of India’) and Strange Sensation (a reworking of the tune of ‘La cumparsita’).
Innate musicality and personal magnetism, allied to that husky voice with its special vibrato, secured Ecktine’s niche on the international club circuit. He first toured Europe in 1954 (that same year he scored a UK charts No.3 hit with ‘No One But You’) and returned to the Continent for many subsequent seasons. His 1959 recording of ‘Gigi’ reached No.8 and he was latterly to find extended popularity via the duets he recorded with Sarah Vaughan, particularly ‘Passing Strangers’ which, recorded in 1957, charted at No.17 in 1969. The eclecticism and more popular aspects of his repertoire led to his classification by some as a commercially-driven balladeer with jazz influences rather than a pure jazz-singer, but nonetheless Billy was indisputably one of the first of the jazz-derived vocalists to achieve stardom in a world-class cabaret career which extended, intermittently, until 1989 when a stroke robbed him of his mobility.
Billy Eckstine died in his native Pittsburgh on 8March, 1993.
Peter Dempsey, 2003
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