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8.120655 - ECKSTINE, Billy: My Foolish Heart (1945-1951)
My Foolish Heart Original Recordings 1945-1951
One of the most immediately recognisable and, on account of its vibrato, most imitated of the jazz-singers, during the mid-1940s the personable Billy Eckstine evolved from would-be bebop bandleader and promoter into the sartorially elegant Mr B, the first real Afro-American pop idol, a black star who appealed directly to both black and white audiences in an era when it was radical rather than commonplace to do so. The multi-talented Billy (who apart from winning world fame with that massively resonant and highly distinctive baritone voice was also at various stages in his career trumpeter, trombonist and guitarist) was born Clarence William Eckstein in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on 8 July 1914. After making his singing début at a church bazaar at the age of eleven, he began taking piano lessons but had no formal vocal training. In his youth his greatest interest by far was football; indeed, he was the recipient of an athletic scholarship to St. Pauls University, Lawrenceville and it took the misfortune of a broken collarbone to refocus him towards music.
Initially, Billy had worked as a vocalist-MC in clubs in the East and Midwest (most notably with a band led by Tommy Myles) until 1936, when he returned to Pittsburgh. By 1937 he was singing in clubs in Buffalo and Detroit, gradually working his way to Chicago where he became resident vocalist at the De Liso. He was first heard there by Earl Hines (1903-83) and it was through Hines he got his first big break, as principal vocalist with that piano giants bigband, in late 1939. Eckstine would remain with Hines for four years: noted already for his specialising in blues vocals, he occasionally also doubled on trumpet, which he had learned to play in spare moments during the bands tours. The Hines Orchestra became a renowned prep school for modern jazz luminaries, including Dizzy Gillespie, and through Ecksteins influence Hines hired several young talents, notably Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughan, whom Eckstine had heard singing at an amateur night at the New York Apollo.
By 1943 Eckstine had quit Hines outfit and almost immediately embarked on a solo career at New Yorks 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 for survival at the tail-end of the Swing Era, this enterprise was a dinosaur, but proved nonetheless monumentally impor-tant 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 the vocalists Sarah Vaughan and Lena Horne.
During 1945-46, apart from leading his band and penning various characteristic numbers in a 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, he 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 1947-48 his hits list was further extended with, among other numbers, The Wildest Gal In Town, True, Intrigue and Sophisticated Lady (this last accompanied by a band which featured Miles Davis).
By 1947, however, Billy was tiring of one-night stands as a bandleader and, disbanding his orchestra he regained his solo identity. Now billed as The Fabulous Mr B and armed with a lucrative five-year MGM recording contract, he was at the peak of his popularity in this latter capacity and between 1949 and 1953 hits became more numerous for Americas most popular vocalist. These included (in 1949) Somehow (at No. 25) and a revival of the 1930 standard Body And Soul (at No. 27); (in 1950) Sitting By The Window (No.23) and another million-seller, by 1951 consecutively his third, with My Foolish Heart (the schmaltzy, Oscar nominated title-song of Sam Goldwyns 1949 womans picture of that name, this provided Eckstine with No.6 cover which became his virtual theme-tune) and (in 1951) a further Golden Disc with I Apologize (a resurrection of a 1931-vintage Bing Crosby vehicle) and US No.26 cover-version of Be My Love, an Oscar-nominated song introduced by Mario Lanza in MGMs 1950 film-musical Toast Of New Orleans.
Thanks to his musicality, his magnetic persona and that husky voice with its special vibrato, Eckstine carved a reputation on the nightclub circuit which would endure for several decades. 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 various duets with Sarah Vaughan, particularly Passing Strangers which, recorded in 1957, charted at No.17, in 1969. The eclecticism of Eckstines repertoire, allied to its high commercial rating, has led to his being classified in some circles 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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