William Clarence Eckstine (July 8, 1914 – March 8, 1993) was an American jazz and pop singer, and a bandleader of the swing era. He was noted for his rich, resonant, almost operatic bass-baritone voice. Eckstine's recording of "I Apologize" (MGM, 1948) was awarded the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999. The New York Times described him as an "influential band leader" whose "suave bass-baritone" and "full-throated, sugary approach to popular songs inspired singers like Joe Williams, Arthur Prysock and Lou Rawls."
Billy Eckstine in New York City c.1946
|Birth name||William Clarence Eckstein|
|Also known as||Mr. B|
|Born||July 8, 1914|
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.
|Died||March 8, 1993 (aged 78)|
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.
|Instruments||Vocals, valve trombone, trumpet, guitar|
|Associated acts||Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughan|
Eckstine's paternal grandparents were William F. Eckstein and Nannie Eckstein, a mixed-race, married couple who lived in Washington, D.C.; both were born in 1863. William F. was born in Prussia and Nannie in Virginia. His parents were William Eckstein, a chauffeur, and Charlotte Eckstein, a seamstress of note. Eckstine was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; a State Historical Marker is placed at 5913 Bryant St, Highland Park, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to mark the house where he grew up. Billy's sister, Maxine (married name Whedbee), was a well-respected Spanish teacher at Taylor Allderdice High School in Pittsburgh.
He attended Peabody High School before moving to Washington, DC. He attended Armstrong High School, St. Paul Normal and Industrial School, and Howard University. He left Howard in 1933, after winning first place in an amateur talent contest. He married his first wife, June, in 1942. After their divorce in 1952, he remarried shortly after to actress and model Carolle Drake in 1953, and they remained married until his death. He was the father of four children by his second marriage and two step-children, including Ed Eckstine, who was a president of Mercury Records, Guy Eckstine, who was a Columbia and Verve Records A&R executive and record producer, singer Gina Eckstine, and actor Ronnie Eckstine.
Heading to Chicago, Eckstine joined Earl Hines' Grand Terrace Orchestra in 1939, staying with the band as vocalist and trumpeter until 1943. By that time, Eckstine had begun to make a name for himself through the Hines band's juke-box hits such as "Stormy Monday Blues", and his own "Jelly Jelly."
In 1944, Eckstine formed his own big band and it became the finishing school for adventurous young musicians who would shape the future of jazz. Included in this group were Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Charlie Parker, and Fats Navarro, as well as vocalist Sarah Vaughan. Tadd Dameron, Gil Fuller and Jerry Valentine were among the band's arrangers. The Billy Eckstine Orchestra is considered to be the first bop big-band, and had Top Ten chart entries that included "A Cottage for Sale" and "Prisoner of Love". Both were awarded a gold disc by the RIAA.
Dizzy Gillespie, in reflecting on the band in his 1979 autobiography To Be or Not to Bop, gives this perspective: "There was no band that sounded like Billy Eckstine's. Our attack was strong, and we were playing bebop, the modern style. No other band like this one existed in the world."
Eckstine became a solo performer in 1947, with records featuring lush sophisticated orchestrations. Even before folding his band, Eckstine had recorded solo to support it, scoring two million-sellers in 1945 with "Cottage for Sale" and a revival of "Prisoner of Love". Far more successful than his band recordings, these prefigured Eckstine's future career. Eckstine would go on to record over a dozen hits during the late 1940s. He signed with the newly established MGM Records, and had immediate hits with revivals of "Everything I Have Is Yours" (1947), Rodgers and Hart's "Blue Moon" (1948), and Juan Tizol's "Caravan" (1949).
Eckstine was the subject of a three-page profile in the 25 April 1950 issue of LIFE magazine, in which the photographer Martha Holmes accompanied Eckstine and his entourage during a week in New York City. One photograph taken by Holmes and published in LIFE showed Eckstine with a group of white female admirers, one of whom had her hand on his shoulder and her head on his chest while she laughed. Eckstine's biographer Cary Ginell, wrote of the image that Holmes "...captured a moment of shared exuberance, joy, and affection, unblemished by racial tension." Holmes would later describe the photograph as the favorite of the many she had taken in her career as it "...told just what the world should be like". The photograph was considered so controversial that an editor at LIFE sought personal approval from Henry Luce, the magazine's publisher, who said it should be published. The publication of the image caused letters of protest to be written to the magazine, and singer Harry Belafonte subsequently said of the publication that "When that photo hit, in this national publication, it was if a barrier had been broken". The controversy that resulted from the photograph had a seminal effect on the trajectory of Eckstine's career. Tony Bennett would recall that "It changed everything...Before that, he had a tremendous following...and it just offended the white community", a sentiment shared by pianist Billy Taylor who said that the "coverage and that picture just slammed the door shut for him".
The 1960 Las Vegas live album, No Cover, No Minimum, featured Eckstine taking a few trumpet solos and showcased his nightclub act. He recorded albums for Mercury and Roulette in the early 1960s, and appeared on Motown albums during the mid to late 1960s. After recording sparingly during the 1970s for Al Bell's Stax/Enterprise imprint, the international touring Eckstine made his last recording, the Grammy-nominated Billy Eckstine Sings with Benny Carter in 1986.
Eckstine made numerous appearances on television variety shows, including on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Nat King Cole Show, The Tonight Show with Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Johnny Carson, The Merv Griffin Show, The Art Linkletter Show, The Joey Bishop Show, The Dean Martin Show, The Flip Wilson Show, and Playboy After Dark. He also performed as an actor in the TV sitcom Sanford and Son, and in such films as Skirts Ahoy, Let's Do It Again, and Jo Jo Dancer.
Culturally Eckstine was a fashion icon. He was famous for his "Mr. B. Collar"- a high roll collar that formed a "B" over a Windsor-knotted tie. The collars were worn by many a hipster in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
In 1984 Eckstine recorded his penultimate album, I Am a Singer, arranged and conducted by Angelo DiPippo and featuring Toots Thielemans on harmonica. In November 1986, Eckstine recorded with saxophonist Benny Carter for his 1987 album Billy Eckstine Sings with Benny Carter. Eckstine made his final recordings for Motorcity Records, a label for ex-Motown artists founded by Ian Levine.
Eckstine suffered a stroke while performing in Salina, Kansas, in April 1992, and never performed again. Though his speech improved in the hospital, Eckstine had a heart attack, and died a few months later on March 8, 1993, aged 78. Eckstine's final word was "Basie".
His friend Duke Ellington recalled Eckstine's artistry in his 1973 autobiography Music is My Mistress: "Eckstine-style love songs opened new lines of communication for the man in the man-woman merry-go-round, and blues a la B were the essence of cool. When he made a recording of "Caravan", I was happy and honored to watch one of our tunes help take him into the stratosphere of universal acclaim. And, of course, he hasn't looked back since. A remarkable artist, the sonorous B." ... "His style and technique have seen extensively copied by some of the neocommercial singers, but despite their efforts he remains out front to show how and what should have been done."
Sammy Davis, Jr. made several live appearances and impersonated Eckstine. Eckstine was a pallbearer at Davis' funeral in 1990.
Quincy Jones stated in Billboard: "I looked up to Mr. B as an idol. I wanted to dress like him, talk like him, pattern my whole life as a musician and as a complete person in the image of dignity that he projected.... As a black man, Eckstine was not immune to the prejudice that characterized the 1950s." Jones is quoted in The Pleasures of Jazz as also saying of Eckstine: "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."
Lionel Hampton: "He was one of the greatest singers of all time.... We were proud of him because he was the first Black popular singer singing popular songs in our race. We, the whole music profession, were so happy to see him achieve what he was doing. He was one of the greatest singers of that era ... He was our singer."
With Howard McGhee
"All My Life" is a 1944 song composed by Irving Berlin. Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine recorded it for their album "'Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine Sing the Best of Irving Berlin.At Basin Street East (Billy Eckstine and Quincy Jones album)
At Basin Street East is a 1961 live album by Billy Eckstine, accompanied by a big band arranged and conducted by Quincy Jones. It was originally released on October 1, 1961 on the EmArcy label, but reissued in 1990 by Polygram. The album was recorded at the Basin Street East nightclub in New York City.Basie/Eckstine Incorporated
Basie/Eckstine Incorporated is a 1959 studio album featuring Billy Eckstine and the Count Basie Orchestra. It was released by Roulette Records, and marked Eckstine and Basie's only recorded collaboration.Billy's Best!
Billy's Best! is a 1958 album by American jazz and blues singer Billy Eckstine. The album was released by Mercury Records, and was his first release for the label.
Arranged and conducted by Henry Mancini and Pete Rugolo, the lush, romantic arrangements featuring strings and woodwinds along with the big band arrangements featuring swinging brass, provide a perfect setting for Eckstine's voice. Among the notable tracks are Stella by Starlight, The Boulevard of Broken Dreams, You Don't Know What Love Is and Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart.
Not the greatest-hits compilation many listeners think it is, Billy's Best! is in fact a full LP of newly recorded music.Billy Eckstine's Imagination
Imagination is a 1958 album recorded by Billy Eckstine. It was released under the EmArcy label.Billy Eckstine Sings with Benny Carter
Billy Eckstine Sings with Benny Carter is a 1986 album by the American singer Billy Eckstine, accompanied by the alto saxophonist Benny Carter. The singer Helen Merrill appears in duet with Eckstine on the first and last songs of the album. This was Eckstine's only LP released on Verve Records, and marked his final album recordings.Eckstine was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Male at the 30th Grammy Awards for his work on the album.Blue Moon (1934 song)
"Blue Moon" is a classic popular song traditionally regarded as written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart in 1934, though its authorship is disputed. It may be the first instance of the familiar "50s progression" in a popular song and has become a standard ballad. The song was a hit twice in 1949 with successful recordings in the US by Billy Eckstine and Mel Tormé. In 1961, "Blue Moon" became an international number-one hit for the doo-wop group The Marcels, on the Billboard 100 chart and in the UK Singles chart. Over the years, "Blue Moon" has been covered by various artists including versions by Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Elvis Presley, The Platters, The Mavericks, Dean Martin, The Supremes, Bob Dylan and Rod Stewart. Bing Crosby included the song in a medley on his album On the Happy Side (1962). It is also the anthem of English Football League club Crewe Alexandra and English Premier League football club Manchester City, who have both adapted the song slightly.Everything I Have Is Yours (album)
Everything I Have Is Yours is a 1994 compilation album of songs by Billy Eckstine. It was released by Verve Records and has two discs.I Apologize (1931 song)
"I Apologize" is a popular song written by Al Hoffman, Al Goodhart, and Ed Nelson. The song was published in 1931 and recordings by Bing Crosby and Nat Shilkret were very successful that year.Probably the best-known version of the song was recorded by Billy Eckstine. This recording was released by MGM Records as catalog number 10903. It first reached the Billboard Best Seller chart on February 23, 1951, and lasted 19 weeks on the chart, peaking at number eight. It was awarded the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999.Tony Martin and also Champ Butler enjoyed chart success in 1951.Dinah Washington recorded the song in 1952 for her album Blazing BalladsTimi Yuro recorded the song for Liberty Records. It reached # 72 on the US Charts in 1961.
Aretha Franklin recorded the song for her album The Tender, the Moving, the Swinging Aretha Franklin (1962).
A recording by P. J. Proby reached number 11 in the UK Singles Chart in 1965.
Matt Monro's version is included in the album Matt Uncovered - The Rarer MonroMy Way (Billy Eckstine album)
My Way is a 1966 studio album by the American singer Billy Eckstine. It was produced by William "Mickey" Stevenson, and was the second of three albums that Eckstine recorded for Motown Records.No Cover, No Minimum
No Cover, No Minimum is a live album by Billy Eckstine that was recorded in Las Vegas. The album was released by Roulette in 1960 and reissued by Blue Note in 1992 with ten additional tracks.Once More with Feeling (Billy Eckstine album)
Once More with Feeling is a 1960 studio album by the American singer Billy Eckstine. It was arranged by Billy May and produced by Teddy Reig.Passing Strangers (1957 song)
"Passing Strangers" is a popular song, written in 1957 by Mel Mitchell, Stanley Applebaum and Rita Mann. At times it is mis-credited to Barry Mann and Sidney Mitchell.The song was recorded that year as a duet by Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan, and gave them a minor hit in the United States, where the song reached No. 82 on the Billboard charts. However, it enjoyed greater success in the United Kingdom, where, after initially being released in 1957 and spending two weeks in the UK Singles Chart, it was re-issued in 1969. On this occasion, it spent 15 weeks in the chart and peaked at No. 20.Prisoner of Love (Russ Columbo song)
"Prisoner of Love" is a 1931 popular song with music by Russ Columbo and Clarence Gaskill and lyrics by Leo Robin.Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine Sing the Best of Irving Berlin
Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine Sing the Best of Irving Berlin is a 1957 studio album featuring Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan, and the songs of Irving Berlin.Although Vaughan had made many recordings with Eckstine, this was their only complete album together.Skirts Ahoy!
Skirts Ahoy! is a 1952 MGM musical film directed by Sidney Lanfield and starring Esther Williams, Vivian Blaine and Joan Evans. It was shot in Technicolor. The film follows the adventures of several women who join the WAVES with sequences filmed on location at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. It also features the film debut of Billy Eckstine.Stormy Monday Blues
"Stormy Monday Blues" is a jazz song first recorded in 1942 by Earl Hines and His Orchestra with Billy Eckstine on vocals. The song was a hit, reaching number one in Billboard magazine's "Harlem Hit Parade", making it Hines' only appearance in the charts.
"Stormy Monday Blues" is performed in the style of a slow blues that "starts with Hines' piano and a walking bass for the introduction". Billy Eckstine then enters with the vocal:
The lyrics "stormy" or "Monday" do not appear in the song. A trumpet solo by Maurice "Shorty" McConnell with big band backing is featured in the second half of the song. Eckstine later recorded "Stormy Monday Blues" in 1959 with Count Basie for their Basie/Eckstine Incorporated album.The song has sometimes been confused with T-Bone Walker's 1947 song "Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just as Bad)", which is frequently shortened to "Stormy Monday" or "Stormy Monday Blues".The Golden Hits of Billy Eckstine
The Golden Hits of Billy Eckstine is a 1963 studio album by the American singer Billy Eckstine. It was arranged by Billy Byers, conducted by Bobby Tucker, and produced by Quincy Jones.Timeless Billy Eckstine
Timeless is a 2005 album featuring the music of Billy Eckstine. The album was released by Savoy Records. It was also reissued in 2006 under the title Prisoner of Love: The Romantic Billy Eckstine.