Daniels, William “Billy”
William “Billy” Daniels
Singer, entertainer, and actor William "Billy" Boone Daniels' career spanned over fifty years. Daniels was famous for his voice and the emotions he conveyed while performing. Daniels was the first black performer to have his own weekly radio show. He was one of the first black performers to have a television show as well. His unique style and talent made him a popular entertainer in the United States, Europe, and around the world. He was so popular in Britain that he gave eight Command Performances for England's Queen Elizabeth II. Over the course of his career Daniels released over forty singles and eleven albums, appeared in at least twenty-one films, made numerous television appearances, and gave over 1,200 performances in plays and thousands of performances in nightclubs around the world. He is best known for his rendition of "That Old Black Magic." His unique voice and style continues to live on through the re-release of several of his albums.
Born in Jacksonville, Florida on September 12, 1915, Billy Daniels was a descendant of slaves and the Kentucky frontiersman Daniel Boone. Daniels was one of five children. His father worked as a railway postmaster, but Daniels was drawn to entertainment from a very young age. He sang with street performers in Jacksonville as a child as well as in a church choir. He was so good that by the time he was a teenager he was a regular performer on Jones College's WJAX AM radio station and WMBR FM radio station.
Daniels' earliest ambition was to become a lawyer. He began pre-law classes at Florida State Agricultural & Mechanical College (formerly State Normal College for Colored Students) in Tallahassee, Florida, but Daniels eventually dropped out to help his father support his brothers and sisters.
In 1932, Daniels entered a song contest in New York while visiting his grandmother. Daniels took second place, beating out Ella Fitzgerald who came in fifth. It was the beginning of both singers' musical careers. In 1934 Daniels stowed away on a freighter leaving Jacksonville for New York City. A former college classmate took Daniels to the Hotcha Club in Harlem. Daniels' friend insisted that he should sing a few songs. The owners of the Hotcha Club were so impressed that they hired him on the spot to become one of their singing waiters. Daniels was paid $25 per week. One evening in 1934, Daniels happened to wait upon bandleader Erskine Hawkins, who was impressed with his voice. Hawkins hired Daniels as a vocalist for the Bama State Collegians. Daniels toured with Hawkins between 1934 and 1936 before striking out on his own. By 1937 Daniels had a tremendous following with both black and white audiences. By that time, he routinely worked for at least twelve New York radio stations. Daniels ultimately paired with pianist Benny Payne, with whom he worked for over thirty years. In 1941, Daniels had his first hit song, "Dianne," his trademark song until he made it big with "That Old Black Magic," which he originally sang on a whim while performing in Atlantic City in 1948. Daniels' rendition of "That Old Black Magic" became a hit across the United States. It sold more than nine million copies.
- Born in Jacksonville, Florida on September 12
- Discovered by Erskine Hawkins working as a singing waiter in New York City
- Leaves the Hawkins band to start solo career
- Releases first hit song "Dianne"
- Becomes famous for "That Old Black Magic"
- Appears on Broadway in musical Memphis Bound
- Makes first movie, Sepia Cinderella; first wife dies
- Stars in When You're Smiling with Frankie Laine; marries Boston socialite Martha Braun
- Stars in Sunny Side of the Street and Rainbow Round My Shoulder with Frankie Laine
- The Billy Daniels Show premiers on television
- Divorces second wife, Martha Braun
- Marries Pierrette Cameron
- Begins working on musical Golden Boy
- Plays lead in musical Bubbling Brown Sugar
- Dies of stomach cancer in Los Angeles, California on October 7
Daniels was a fixture on the New York City club and restaurant scene for over forty years, but he also performed across the United States, Europe and Australia. Daniels made several trips to Vietnam to entertain U.S. troops. His dramatic voice, the physicality of his performance, and his good looks made an irresistible combination. Daniels performed at such New York clubs as the Copacabana, Park Avenue Restaurant, the Onyx Club, Ebony Club, Club 845, Hunts Point Palace and the Famous Door, the Mocambo in Hollywood, The Riviera in New Jersey, and Club Harlem in Atlantic City. At the height of his success, Daniels made $2$6,000 per week performing in Las Vegas. Daniels was a staple at London's Palladium in the 1950s and 1960s.
Daniels made over forty songs his own, including "Them There Eyes," "Love Is a Many Splendered Thing," "Autumn Leaves," "My Blue Heaven," "You Were Meant for Me," "How Deep Is the Ocean," "The Game of Love," "My Funny Valentine," "More than You Know," and "Nothing Can Stop Me Now." However, his rendition of "That Old Black Magic" from the 1942 film Star Spangled Rhythm became his signature song. Not one to be out of step with the times, Daniels even made a disco version of the song in the 1970s. Over the course of his career, Daniels released at least eleven albums on the Mercury, Vocalion, Bluebird, Victor, Savoy, Decca, and Apollo labels.
Daniels' career was not without its difficulties, however. He was a frequent associate with people in the mafia. He was stabbed twice and charged with shooting a man. In the most notorious case Daniels was charged with felonious assault in the shooting of James R. Jackson. There were rumors of police bribery and cover-ups. Although Daniels was ultimately acquitted of all charges, he lost his license to perform in New York night clubs for several years.
Works in the Theater
Daniels first appeared on Broadway in the short-lived musical Memphis Bound, a 1945 jazz remake of Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore. The premise of the musical was that a black musical troupe puts on a production of the H.M.S. Pinafore to raise the money necessary to get their showboat off the Mississippi mudflat where it has run aground. The lyrics and music were written by Don Walker and Clay Warnick. Daniels starred with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Avon Long, Frankie Wilson, Sheila Guyse, and Thelma Carpenter. The show was performed thirty-six times before being cancelled.
Daniels' second foray into Broadway theater was the 1964 play Golden Boy. The music for the show was written by Charles Strouse and the lyrics by Lee Adams. Golden Boy was based on the play by Clifford Odets which made a star out of lead actor William Holden. Daniels played manager Edie Satin to Sammy Davis Jr. in the lead role of Joe Wellington. Golden Boy was the first Broadway musical to focus on interracial differences, exploitation of blacks, and interracial relationships. A famous song in the show, "While the City Sleeps," was sung by Daniels. Golden Boy was a huge hit. It opened October 20, 1964, and ran until March 5, 1966, for a total of 568 performances. The show was nominated for four Tony Awards in 1965.
Daniels' next Broadway show was an all black version of Hello Dolly!, in which Daniels appeared with Pearl Bailey. Daniels played the lead male role of Horace Van-dergelder to Peal Bailey's Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi. Although Hello Dolly! did not enjoy as long of a run as Golden Boy, the show was so successful that the songs featured in the musical were made into an album.
Daniels' final theatre performance was in the 1977 musical Bubbling Brown Sugar, produced in London at the Palladium theatre. Daniels played the lead role. The musical was set in a Harlem nightclub, and the show featured the music by Eubie Blake and Fats Waller and several gospel selections. The inclusion of the gospel and religious music was unusual at the time and was not repeated for several years until the play Ain't Misbehavin' debuted. Daniels gave over seven hundred performances of this play. He received the 1978 London Critics Award for Best Musical Performance. The show included such musical greats as Elaine Delmar, Clarke Peters, Lon Satton, and Helen Gelzer. Daniels' rendition of "Honeysuckle Rose" was a show stopper.
Accomplishments in Television and Film
Billy Daniels was one of the first black men to have his own television show. Premiering in 1952, the show appeared Sunday evenings on ABC. A milestone in television history, The Billy Daniels Show lasted only thirteen weeks. According to Fred MacDonald, Daniels' show was on television stations in the "largest cities in the United States." Television was an extremely difficult medium for blacks to break into in the 1950s. One of the biggest obstacles faced by blacks was the unwillingness of major companies to buy commercial time. When Daniels' show was cancelled many viewers wrote in to object. Even though the show did not enjoy a long run, it paved the way for the later success of Nat King Cole's television show.
Daniels was a popular guest on the Colgate Comedy Hour in 1953 and 1954 and made numerous appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. Then in the late 1950s Billy Daniels had a second television show, The Billy Daniels Show II, which broadcast on a local Los Angeles television station. This very popular show featured the Benny Payne Trio. Later Daniels made several appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and the 1970s show The Mod Squad.
As in other entertainment fields, blacks had difficulty breaking into and succeeding in the movies. The film industry was predominantly white, and few cinemas allowed blacks inside. According to Henry Sampson, most black cinemas were owned by whites who censored the films shown in their theaters. Few blacks appeared in movies; in fact, most blacks were portrayed by whites in blackface. It was not until the 1920s that all black casts appeared in movies which had been filmed and produced by blacks, and these productions were a tremendous suc-cess. Daniels appeared in twenty-one movies during the course of his career.
Daniels' first starring role was in the 1947 all black movie Sepia Cinderella, in which Daniels played a talented band leader. In the film, Daniels is the Cinderella character, whose sudden singing success causes him to abandon his longtime girlfriend as he chases after fame and glory. The production quality of the film was so high that Jack Goldberg, president of Herald Pictures, felt the film could play in both black and white movie theaters.
Daniels made several films with Frankie Laine, including When You're Smiling in 1950; and Sunny Side of the Street and Rainbow Round My Shoulder both in 1951. In 1953 Daniels appeared in Cruising down the River. Other film credits include the 1956 short from Universal with Eileen Barton entitled Mr. Black Magic.
In 1959, Daniels appeared in three films. In The Big Operator, Daniels played with Mickey Rooney and Jackie Coogan. Daniels appeared in Night of the Quarter Moon; this film was also called Flesh and Flame and The Color of Her Skin. The movie focused on race relations and bigotry. Daniels' final film was The Beat Generation, which dealt with then-taboo topics of rape and abortion. The film was reissued under the title This Rebel Age.
Billy Daniels was married three times. His first wife, Florence Clotworthy, committed suicide in 1947. His second marriage in 1950 to white Boston socialite and model Martha Braun created headlines across the country and ended in divorce four years later. His third marriage was to French-Canadian Pierrette Cameron in 1956. Cameron was governess to Daniels' children when they fell in love. Daniels and Cameron remained married until his death in 1988. The couple had two children of their own.
In the 1980s Daniels began to develop health problems; however, he continued to perform. He underwent heart-bypass surgery in 1982 and again in 1987. Both times Daniels returned to singing. But he was unable to overcome stomach cancer. Billy Daniels died of that disease in Los Angeles, California on October 7, 1988.
Even in death Daniels' popularity continued among fans of jazz and Big Band music. Several of Daniels albums were re-released, including the 1956 Billy Daniels at the Crescendo in 1993 and again in 2001 with the title Mr. Black Magic; the 1953 Songs at Midnight and Around Midnight in 2004; and the 1948 Billy Daniels That Old Black Magic in 2005.
MacDonald, J. Fred. Blacks and White TV. Chicago, Ill.: Nelson-Hall, Inc., 1983.
Sampson, Henry T. Blacks in Black and White: A Source Book on Black Films. 2nd edition. Lanham, Md.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1995.
"Billy Daniels Hits the Top." Ebony (September 1950): 42-44.
Goss, Charles Filmore. "Billy Daniels, Big Band Singer, Dies." Washington Post (9 October 1988): B8.
Uhlig, Mark A. "Billy Daniels, Who Sang in Nightclubs, Dies at 73." New York Times (10 October 1988): B8.
Anne K. Driscoll