Handsome and elegant, Billy Eckstine was one of the nation’s most popular singers in the years between the end of World War II and the advent of rock and roll. Eckstine achieved renown primarily as a solo crooner whose “vocal lower register was often a sound of rare beauty,” according to George T. Simon in The Big Bands; however, Eckstine’s contribution to modern jazz as a band leader is also significant. In The Pleasures of Jazz, Leonard Feather writes that the Billy Eckstine Band, founded in 1944 and disbanded in 1946, was “the first big bebop band, musically apocalyptic but too far ahead of the public taste.” Arnold Shaw also comments in Black Popular Music in America that Eckstine’s orchestra—staffed by such giants as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan—”left a permanent mark on Jazz history.” Eckstine’s own mark on music history rivals that of his contemporaries Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and Nat “King” Cole. As Simon notes in The Best of the Music Makers, Eckstine’s fame at its zenith in the early-to-mid-1950s “equaled that of any popular singer of his time. First dubbed ‘The Sepia Sinatra, ‘then The Great Mr. B.,’Billy Eckstine had a host of imitators, set trends in male fashions, and was pursued by bobby soxers. Responsible for a new and influential style of romantic singing, he was also the first black singer to become a national sex symbol and to make the front cover of Life magazine.”
William Clarence Eckstine was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on July 8, 1914. He grew up in Pittsburgh and in Washington, D.C., where he attended Armstrong High School. His parents emphasized education, so after high school he enrolled in college, first at St. Paul Normal and Industrial School in Lawrenceville, Virginia, then at Howard University in the nation’s capitol. After only a year of college he won an amateur music contest at the Howard Theater and decided to sing full time. From 1934 until 1939, Eckstine—who changed the spelling of his name because a club owner thought it looked “too Jewish”—performed as a vocalist with small dance bands in the mid-Atlantic region. He joined the Earl Hines Orchestra as a soloist in 1939, learned to play the trumpet, and met many of the pioneers of modern jazz. Eckstine’s first hit was “Jelly, Jelly,” released in 1940. He followed that success with other blues tunes and romantic ballads such as “Somehow,” “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” and “Skylark.” In 1943 Eckstine left the Hines group to try to form his own band. The next year he assembled an impressive ensemble of talented musicians for the Billy Eckstine Band. In addition to Parker, Davis, Vaughan, and Gillespie, Eckstine hired Fats Navarro, Gene Ammons, Dexter Gordon, and drummer Art Blakey. Touring the South in 1944, the band grossed $100, 000 in its first ten weeks.
Full name, William Clarence Eckstine; surname originally Eckstein; born July 8, 1914, in Pittsburgh, Pa.; son of William and Charlotte Eckstein; married a singer, 1942; children: five sons; two daughters. Education: Attended St. Paul Normal and Industrial School and Howard University.
Began working as a singer, 1934; soloist with Earl Hines Orchestra, 1939-43; solo performer, 1943-44; founder and leader of Billy Eckstine Band, 1944-46; solo performer, 1946—; has toured and recorded as a vocalist, trumpeter, and trombonist.
Awards: Named top male vocalist by Metronome magazine, 1949 and 1950; voted most popular singer in down beat readers poll, 1949 and 1950; winner of Billboard college poll, 1951.
Addresses: Home —Encino, CA. Office –c/o Polygram Records, 810 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10019.
Eckstine’s band was full of artists who were seeking new forms of musical expression. They introduced rhythmic and melodic innovations that transformed the standard jazz of the 1920s—primarily dancing music with a steady beat—to bebop, a music of offbeat accents and orchestral improvisations. Although Hines’s and other big bands had experimented with the new sounds, Eckstine’s was the first group to highlight them; hence, he is credited with forming the first big bop band. Unfortunately, bebop did not provide the best formula to set off a singer, and according to Simon in The Big Bands, Eckstine’s recordings “sounded so bad that they made few … converts.” Nor was it easy to meet the large payroll and unify so many unconventional temperaments.
After only two years Eckstine disbanded his orchestra and returned to solo performing. Simon notes in The Best of the Music Makers that bebop’s loss “was Eckstine’s gain. Unfettered by the band, he soon produced a string of hits, mostly stylized, smooth romantic ballads.” The sensuous music found a mainstream audience, and the stylish Eckstine, who headlined with the George Shearing Quintet and the Count Basie orchestra, became a fashion trend-setter. By 1950 he was MGM’s top-selling popular singer and was drawing record-breaking crowds at the Oasis Club in Los Angeles and New York’s Paramount Theater. On November 11, 1950, he gave a solo concert at Carnegie Hall, leading a New York Herald Tribune critic to write: “Mr. Eckstine begins with considerably more voice than the average crooner, and therefore he is not driven to the usual faking procedures popularized by others. He sings, for the most part, on pitch, cleanly, clearly, and with the standard breast-beating and catch-in-the-voice technique that seem the stock-in-trade of novelty crooners. But there is real vocal color to his work, and it is a color which he varies according to the expressive dictates of the song.”
As a black man, Eckstine was not immune to the prejudice that characterized the 1950s. Quincy Jones is quoted in The Pleasures of Jazz as saying of Eckstine: “They never let him become the sex symbol he might have become. 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.” Jones’s assessment is accurate; denied the television and movie exposure his fame seemed to warrant, Eckstine gradually returned to semi-obscurity. He has never lacked for work in Las Vegas, Miami, and California—he still performs regularly—but the international acclaim that still greets his contemporaries has passed him by. Eckstine still finds an audience, though, and he also has time to indulge his passions for golf and classical music. In The Best of the Music Makers, Simon concludes that the years have been kind to Eckstine, keeping his voice clear and his looks youthful. “Fads don’t last,” writes Simon, “but talent does.”
I Stay in the Mood for You, Deluxe.
I’ll Wait and Pray, Deluxe.
She’s Got the Blues for Sale, National.
In the Still of the Night, National.
Cool Breeze, National.
Prisoner of Love, National.
Fools Rush In, MGM.
Everything I Have Is Yours, MGM, 1947.
You Go to My Head, MGM.
Caravan, MGM, 1949.
My Foolish Heart, MGM, 1950.
I Apologise, MGM, 1951.
Gentle on My Mind, Motown.
Senior Soul, Enterprise.
Billy Eckstine’s Greatest Hits, Polydor.
Also recorded Feel the Warm, If She Walked into My Life, The Legendary Big Band of Billy Eckstine, The Soul Sessions, Prime of My Life, 1963, For the Love of Ivy, 1967, and My Way, 1967.
Feather, Leonard, The Pleasures of Jazz, Horizon, 1976.
Shaw, Arnold, Black Popular Music in America, Schirmer Books, 1986.
Simon, George T., The Best of the Music Makers, Doubleday, 1979.
Simon, The Big Bands, 4th edition, Schirmer Books, 1981.
Life, April 24, 1950.
Negro Digest, November, 1950.
Newsweek, May 16, 1949.
New York Herald Tribune, November 12, 1950.
Time, June 20, 1949.
—Anne Janette Johnson
Eckstine, Billy 1914–1993
Billy Eckstine 1914–1993
Before the black pop male sex symbol was a seemingly permanent fixture of American culture, long before Teddy Pendergrass, Prince, and R. Kelly, there was Billy Eckstine. In the early years of Eckstine’s career it was still a novelty for black and white performers to share the same stage, but by the time he reached his peak popularity around 1950, he rivaled Frank Sinatra as the country’s most popular vocalist. In fact he was dubbed “the sepia Sinatra,” although he was known most often as “Mr. B.” Eckstine was also noted as a jazz bandleader in the 1940s, gathering many of the performers in the innovative bebop style into a unique large band.
Born William Clarence Eckstein in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on July 8, 1914, Eckstine had the spelling of his name changed early in his career by a club owner who thought, ironically enough, that the original spelling held unfavorable Jewish connotations. Later the family moved to Washington, D.C. Eckstine’s parents stressed education, and he graduated from Washington’s Armstrong High School. He began to sing when he was 11, but was a gifted football player in high school and aspired to a sports career for a time.
Eckstine went on to college, first at a vocational school outside Washington, D.C. and then at the city’s Howard University. A first-place finish in a talent contest at a Washington theater put an end to his educational career, however; he dropped out of school to sing full time. At first he appeared in and around Washington, D.C, but had moved to Chicago by 1937. Pianist and bandleader Earl Hines, whose band was second only to that of Duke Ellington among African American dance ensembles of the day, hired Eckstine as his lead vocalist in 1939. During a four-year stint with Hines, Eckstine broadened his vocal skills, learned to play the trumpet, and met many of the jazz players who were experimenting with wildly new styles in the unsettled commercial environment during World War II.
All this made for ideal training as Eckstine dreamed of starting a band of his own. He notched several hits with Hines, the first of which was the bluesy “Jelly, Jelly” of 1940. When he introduced the song “Skylark” on a network radio program, he was the first African American vocalist to premiere a mainstream pop song on the radio. In 1943 Eckstine was ready to launch his own group, the Billy Eckstine Band. He put together a
At a Glance…
Born William Clarence Eckstein on July 8, 1914, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; died March 8, 1993; son of William and Charlotte Eckstein; married, 1942; children: seven. Education: Attended St. Paul Normal and Industrial School, suburban Washington, D.C., and Howard University, Washington, D.C.
Career: Jazz vocalist and bandleader. Began performing as a singer after winning talent contest, 1934; featured vocalist, Earl Hines Orchestra, 1939-43; first substantial hit, “Jelly, Jelly” 1940; founder and leader, Billy Eckstine Band, 1944-46; solo vocalist, 1946-93; top-selling performer in MGM company catalog, 1950; recorded jazz-oriented material for Mercury label, late 1950s.
Awards: Named top male vocalist, Metronome magazine, 1949 and 1950; voted most popular singer, Down Beat readers’poll, 1949 and 1950.
group of the most talented young players he encountered, and the roster would read like an account of the performers who would dominate jazz over the next two decades. Among those who passed through Eckstine’s band were Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro, Gene Ammons, Dexter Gordon, and Art Blakey.
Eckstine’s initial intention was simply to gather a backing group for his own vocal numbers, but he had the experience and insight to realize the unique opportunities his ensemble offered. Many of them had participated in the formation of the radical new style that became known as bebop; the style replaced the controlled smoothness of swing with harmonic experimentation, irregular rhythms, and increasingly free treatment of songs’ basic melodic materials. Eckstine was able to adapt this sound to a big-band format and is generally credited with forming the first bebop big band.
In the hands of Gillespie and other followers, big-band bebop would become a durable jazz style. At the time, however, Eckstine’s experiments enjoyed only limited commercial success. He had more luck with the romantic ballad style he had been cultivating under Hines; a harbinger of his crossover success came when the band toured the South in 1944 and several promoters dropped the prevalent requirement that the audience be segregated by race. That tour grossed over $100,000 in ten weeks, a figure that made music-industry figures sit up and take notice.
After World War II Eckstine, like other bandleaders, found it difficult to meet his large payroll, and in 1946 he disbanded his ensemble. Unlike some of his contemporaries, though, he was now ideally positioned to succeed as a solo star. He toured with the Count Basie Orchestra and the middle-of-the-road George Shearing Quintet, and was signed to a recording contract by the MGM label. Eckstine’s recordings for MGM were mostly backed by a lush string orchestra, and over the late 1940s they became steadily more successful. Two of his biggest hits were “Everything I Have Is Yours” (1947) and “I Apologize” (1951). By 1950 he was MGM’s top-selling artist and was selling out major venues like New York’s Paramount Theater.
Eckstine’s appeal began with his baritone vocals, so well crafted that he considered a move into classical music for a time. But equally central to his success was his image. Eckstine’s narrow ties and loose-fitting, relaxed jackets became fashion trend-setters, and the singer became a romantic icon whose audiences over time grew to include a substantial proportion of European-American listeners. Like Frank Sinatra, Eckstine was the object of adulation among the “bobby soxers,” the knee-sock-wearing teen female music enthusiasts of the day.
Unquestionably Eckstine crossed racial barriers in an important way, but the racism of the postwar era nevertheless held him back. The romantic movie leads that would have been the natural next step for his career never came his way, and in one of the few films in which he did appear he was instructed not to make eye contact with the white actresses with whom he was sharing a scene. “They weren’t ready for Black singers singing love songs,” Eckstine was quoted as saying in Jet. “It sounds ridiculous but it’s true. We weren’t supposed to sing about love, we were supposed to sing about work or blues.” The decline of bebop swing, and the rise of the nexus of blues and country styles that produced rock and roll finally diminished Eckstine’s popularity somewhat, although he continued to be much sought-after as a top nightclub attraction through the 1950s and 1960s
Eckstine performed into old age, and in 1986 he appeared in the Richard Pryor film Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling. Two of his seven children became important music-industry executives, and an illustration of the regard in which he was held in the industry in general is offered by the recollections of the durably influential producer Quincy Jones, quoted 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.” Though he had lived in California in a luxurious house that had its own nine-hole golf course, Eckstine died in his hometown of Pittsburgh on March 8, 1993.
Billy Eckstine Sings, National, 1949.
Songs by Billy Eckstine, MGM, 1951.
Favorites, MGM, 1951.
The Great Mr. B, King, 1953.
Tenderly, MGM, 1953.
Blues for Sale, EmArcy, 1954.
Mr. B with a Beat, MGM, 1955.
Billy’s Best, Mercury, 1958.
No Cover No Minimum, Mercury, 1961.
The Golden Hits of Billy Eckstine, Mercury, 1963.
Greatest Hits, Polydor, 1984.
Mr. B and the Band, Savoy Sessions, Savoy, 1986 (includes band bebop sides).
Carr, Ian, Digby Fairweather, and Brian Priestley, Jazz; The Essential Companion, Prentice Hall, 1987.
Erlewine, Michael, et al., eds., All Music Guide to Jazz, 3rd ed., Miller Freeman, 1998.
Kernfeld, Barry, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Macmillan, 1988.
Larkin, Colin, ed., The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze UK, 1998.
Lyons, Len, and Don Perlo, Jazz Portraits, William Morrow, 1989.
Billboard, March 20, 1993, p. 10.
Jet, March 22, 1993, p. 14; March 29, 1993, p. 16.
—James M. Manheim
July 8, 1914
March 8, 1993
Popular singer and bandleader William Clarence "Billy" Eckstine was born in Pittsburgh, the youngest of three children. His family moved several times in his early childhood, and he attended high school in Washington, D.C. He later attended the St. Paul Normal and Industrial School in Lawrenceville, Virginia, and Howard University.
Eckstine began his career in show business as a singer and nightclub emcee in Buffalo, Detroit, and Chicago. In 1939 he was hired as the main vocalist for the big band of Earl "Fatha" Hines. While with Hines, he introduced Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Sarah Vaughan to the Hines band. After a number of hit recordings, including "Jelly, Jelly" (1940) and "Skylark" (1942), he left Hines in 1943.
In 1944 Eckstine organized his own big band, with personnel that included many up-and-coming bebop musicians, including Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, and Art Blakey. When, for financial reasons, he was obliged to abandon the band in 1947, he became a solo singer. His smooth baritone was particularly well-suited for ballads. In the late 1940s and early 1950s his popularity rivaled that of Frank Sinatra. He was one of the first black singers to transcend the race market and to become a national sex symbol.
Eckstine spent the next several decades as a performer in nightclubs, often accompanied by pianist Bobby Tucker. He also appeared in such films as Skirts Ahoy (1953), Let's Do It Again (1975), and Jo Jo Dancer: Your Life Is Calling (1986). "Mr. B," as he was widely known, occasionally played the trumpet but was primarily known as a singer. He influenced several generations of African-American singers, including Joe Williams, Arthur Prysock, and Lou Rawls. He died in Pittsburgh.
Burn, Jim. "The Billy Eckstine Band." Jazz Monthly 13, no. 11 (1968): 6.
Gibson, F. "The Billy Eckstine Band." Jazz Journal 23, no. 5 (1970): 2–3.
Southern, Eileen. "'Mr. B' of Ballad and Bop." The Black Perspective in Music 7 (1979): 182–190; 8 (1980): 54–60.
Travis, Dempsey J. An Autobiography of Black Jazz. Chicago: Urban Research Institute, 1983.
eddie s. meadows (1996)