Al Hibbler, a blind jazz vocalist who captivated generations of music lovers with his unique vocal style, died on April 24, 2001, at the age of 85. Inactive professionally for almost three decades, he is remembered best by millions of American baby boomers for his memorable rendition of “Unchained Melody,” a million-selling pop hit in the mid 1950s. A versatile vocal stylist, Hibbler sang with a number of America’s best-known musical artists, including Billy Taylor, Count Basie, Gerald Wilson, and Roland Kirk, but is probably best remembered for his relationship with the Duke Ellington band. While singing for Ellington, Hibbler introduced the hits “I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So” and “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear from Me.”
Hibbler was born blind on August 16, 1915, in Tyro, Mississippi. Because of his disability, he did not attend school until he was 15 years old. He moved with his family to Little Rock, Arkansas, at the age of 12, and three years later, enrolled in the Arkansas Conservatory for the Blind where he studied voice. He had shown an early interest in music and loved singing, a pastime that was put to good use in the conservatory’s choir. He sang soprano in the choir, but before long his voice changed, and he began earning extra money by singing the blues in local bars and clubs.
Hibbler’s professional career was launched in the early 1940s. Shortly after winning a talent contest in Memphis, Tennessee, he joined Jay McShann’s orchestra as a vocalist in early 1942, but a past encounter with Duke Ellington soon changed the direction of Hibbler’s career. Hoping to join Ellington’s group as a vocalist, he had tried out with Ellington and company during a show they were playing in Little Rock in the mid 1930s. Excited by the audience’s positive response to his performance, Hibbler celebrated by getting drunk. The next day, Ellington informed Hibbler that he didn’t want him in the organization, saying, “I can handle a blind man but not a blind drunk,” according to the New York Times. Fortunately, after about 16 months singing for McShann, Hibbler got another chance to show Ellington what he could do. This time he made the cut, replacing Herb Jeffries in Ellington’s orchestra as its sole male vocalist (there were four female vocalists) in May of 1943. To showcase Hibbler’s unique vocal style, labeled “tonal pantomime” by Ellington, the bandleader wrote lyrics for one of his popular instrumental pieces, creating the famous “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear from Me.” Other highlights of Hibbler’s years with Ellington include his recordings of “Don’t You Know I Care,” “I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So,” “Don’t Get Around Much Any More,” and “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues.” Another of Hibbler’s most successful recordings came in 1947 when he sang the opening part of Ellington’s Liberian Suite, entitled “I Like the Sunrise.”
In many respects the marriage of Hibbler’s vocal style, which lent itself most successfully to ballads, and
Born on August 16, 1915, in Tyro, MS; died on April 24, 2001, in Chicago, IL.
Joined Jay McShann’s orchestra, 1942; vocalist in Duke Ellington’s band, 1943-51; released pop hits “Unchained Melody” and “He,” 1955; released final top ten hit, “After the Lights Go Down Low,” 1956; released final full-length albums Monday Every Day on Reprise, 1961, and A Meeting of the Times (with Rahsaan Roland Kirk) on Atlantic, 1972.
Awards: Esquire New Star Award; Down Beat Award for Best Band Vocalist, 1940s.
Ellington’s big band jazz sound was an odd match. But it was a match that lasted nearly eight years despite periodic bickering between the pair over some of Hibbler’s work with other bands. During his years with Ellington, Hibbler also recorded with Billy Kyle, Billy Taylor, Harry Carney, and Mercer Ellington, Duke Ellington’s son. Looking back on Hibbler’s years with his band, Ellington said of the blind singer: “He has ears that see.” According to the Independent, he also said that his association with Hibbler had taught him a great deal. “I learned about senses neither he nor I ever thought we had. He had so many sounds that even without words he could tell of fantasy beyond fantasy.” Of Hibbler’s years with Ellington, musical arranger/producer Quincy Jones told London’s Independent “I liked Hibbler with Duke. He had the same sound as Harry Carney’s baritone sax in the band—that coarseness, the deep-rooted earthiness and warmth.”
For his part, Hibbler considered his years with Ellington an invaluable learning experience. In an interview with the Independent, he recalled: “Duke’s tenor player taught me a lot about singing. I would sit beside him, and he’d take that horn and blow low notes right in my ear. ‘Get down there, way down, ‘he’d say.” Hibbler also recalled how he used Ellington’s voice as a guide to get to the microphone. “I’d walk straight to his voice…. When it was time for me to come off, Duke would talk from the wings, and I’d follow his voice again. When we walked in the street, he’d put his shoulder to mine every so often, and I’d follow again. That way a lot of people never knew that I was blind.” Although Ellington did his best to keep an eye out for the welfare of his blind singer, he was not always able to do so. During an appearance by the Ellington orchestra at the San Francisco Opera House, Hibbler stepped out the stage door to grab a breath of fresh air while the band was playing onstage. Moments later, responding to Hibbler’s screams, band members rushed outside to find that someone had crept up on the singer and ground out a lit cigarette on his face before running off.
The real reasons for Hibbler’s final break with Ellington in September of 1951 are unclear, although there are some reports that blame it on differences over salary, while others trace the breakup to artistic differences. During the final years of Hibbler’s eight-year run with Ellington, the singer was becoming best known for his treatment of slow-tempo numbers like “Danny Boy” and “Trees,” hardly the type of music for which Ellington is remembered. Still others say Hibbler and Ellington decided to go their separate ways after one final blowup over Hibbler’s work with other bands. According to one report, a solo performance by Hibbler at Boston’s Hurricane Club so infuriated Ellington that he is reported to have said, according to the Independent “How dare you sing without me. Who do you think you are? Billy Eckstine? Frank Sinatra?” Hibbler’s reply was unprintable, irrevocably severing his relationship with Ellington.
Shortly after leaving Ellington’s orchestra, Hibbler signed a recording contract with Verve Records. He recorded with a number of the era’s best musicians, including Count Basie and Gerald Wilson, and in 1954 released an album entitled AI Hibbler Sings Duke Ellington. The following year, the singer signed a heavyweight contract with Decca Records and moved into pop music in a big way. Two singles—” Unchained Melody and “He”—that were released on Decca Records in 1955, each sold more than one million copies and climbed into the top ten on pop music charts. In 1956, he returned to the top ten once again with his recording of “After the Lights Go Down Low.” It proved to be his last big hit, however.
By the late 1950s and early 1960s, Hibbler had become active in the civil rights movement, contributing not just financial support but participating in a number of demonstrations during this volatile period in American history. On at least two occasions, he was arrested with other civil rights demonstrators—once in New Jersey in 1959 and again four years later in Alabama. Record companies, worried that Hibbler’s involvement in civil rights could cost them business, generally shied away from him during this period. One exception was Frank Sinatra, who signed Hibbler to a contract with his Reprise Records shortly after the label’s debut. In 1961, Hibbler released an album entitled Monday Every Day for Reprise. Eleven years later, in 1972, he collaborated with instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk on an album called A Meeting of the Times. Although he surfaced occasionally for special performances, this marked the end of Hibbler’s career.
Al Hibbler Sings Love Songs, Verve, 1952.
Al Hibbler Sings Duke Ellington, Norgran, 1954.
After the Lights Go Down Low (includes “Autumn Winds,” “Danny Boy,” and “Dedicated to You”), WEA/Atlantic, 1956.
Starring Al Hibbler (includes “Stella by Starlight,” “You’ll Never Know,” and “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear from Me”), Decca, 1956.
Here’s Hibbler, Decca, 1957.
Torchy and Blue, Decca, 1958.
Monday Every Day, Reprise, 1961.
A Meeting of the Times, Atlantic, 1972.
Best of Al Hibbler (includes “He,”” Unchained Melody,” and “Honeysuckle Rose”), Uni/Varese Sarabande, 1998.
Almanac of Famous People, sixth edition, Gale Research, 1998.
Associated Press, April 27, 2001.
Independent (London, England), April 30, 2001, p. 6.
New York Times, April 25, 2001.
“AL Hibbler,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (September 21, 2001).
“AI Hibbler,” CDNOW, http://cdnow.com (June 18, 2001).
“AI Hibbler-Biography,” Yahoo! Music, http://musicfinder.yahoo.com (June 15, 2001).
“AI Hibbler Dies,” Jazzplus, http://jazzplus.com/news (June 15, 2001).
“Artist Biography: AI Hibbler,” Musicplex, http://www.musicplex.com/c_lister_artistbio.cfm?aid=204 (June 15, 2001).
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