Academic journal article ARSC Journal

Billy Eckstine: The Rise and Fall of the Fabulous Mr. B

Academic journal article ARSC Journal

Billy Eckstine: The Rise and Fall of the Fabulous Mr. B

Article excerpt

In 1950, Billy Eckstine was one of the most famous singers in the world. Screaming teenagers swooned to his sold-out performances in overcrowded concert halls, he was married to a beautiful socialite, had a spacious home in a fashionable Los Angeles suburb, and was looking forward to a career in motion pictures and television. But a controversial photograph published in a Life magazine profile halted the momentum of his career right at its peak. There are those who believe that although Eckstine was successful, he never reached his potential, and played out the rest of his career as a Las Vegas lounge singer. So was Billy Eckstine's career tragic? It all depends on your point of view.

The Early Years

William Clarence Eckstein Jr., was born in Pittsburgh on 8 July 1914. His great-grandfather, who was white, emigrated from Germany in the mid-19th century. In 1880, Billy's grandfather married the daughter of a former slave and the couple had two children, one of whom, William Clarence Eckstein Sr., became Billy's father. The Ecksteins led a comfortable life in Pittsburgh. Billy's father worked as a bellman and chauffeur for a prominent newspaper publisher. At the time Billy was born, the family, consisting of his parents and two older sisters, lived in the fashionable Highland Park section on the North side of Pittsburgh.

As a boy, young Billy delivered newspapers and was a good student in school. He began singing at age 4, learning spirituals sung to him by his grandmother. He grew up tall and handsome, and continued his singing at church bazaars and other functions. His smooth, rich, velvety baritone and wide vibrato made him popular with the girls in his high school.

In 1930, Eckstine moved to Washington to complete high school, after his older sister moved there to become a teacher. His idol at that time was Cab Calloway, the charismatic leader of the house band at Harlem's Cotton Club. Eckstine grew a pencilthin mustache like Calloway and won a talent contest at Washington's Howard Theater, emulating Cab by singing 'Star Dust' in his style. But young Billy Eckstein aspired to be more than just a shuck-and-jive jazz singer. He preferred romantic ballads, and in the 1930s, patterned his quickly developing style after the top crooners of the day, including Bing Crosby, Harlan Lattimore and Pha Terrell.

By 1934, big things were being predicted for the 18-year-old high school senior. He sang and led the Tommy Myles Orchestra and, after graduating, started his own band at Pittsburgh's Savoy Ballroom, calling himself Baron Billy. This began a three-year routine of playing small nightclubs in Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Detroit, before a friend of his, saxophonist/arranger Budd Johnson, invited him to come to Chicago. It was the summer of 1938 and Eckstein got a job singing at Club DeLisa, a mob-run nightclub on the South side of the city.

Learning the Band Business

In September 1939, he joined the Earl Hines Orchestra, one of the hottest big bands in the nation (Fig. 1). It wasn't long before he became its most popular drawing card. At the time he joined Hines, Eckstein could barely read music, but thanks to Budd Johnson, he not only learned to read, but also taught himself to play trumpet, and later, valve trombone. He spent the next four years learning the band business from Hines, and in February 1940 made his first record, "My Heart Beats for You," issued on Bluebird. The song was just an ordinary ballad, but at the band's next Victor session, Eckstein had his first hit, "Jelly, Jelly." He wrote the song himself, getting the idea for the lyrics while listening to a band member talking to his girlfriend on the phone during a break. In 20 minutes, it was finished and the band recorded it as the last song of the session.

Although "Jelly, Jelly" became a huge hit, Eckstine stated on many occasions that he hated singing blues tunes. "They're commercial," he told Metronome in 1947, "but, you can't do anything with them. …

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