MUSIC CLIP - OSCAR PETERSON, “MOONGLOW”
Welcome to Afterglow, [a show of vocal jazz and popular song from the Great American Songbook], I’m your host, Mark Chilla.
This week on the show, we’re celebrating the renowned jazz baritone Billy Eckstine. Eckstine had what one writer has described as “a deep blue dream of a voice,” and he was a cultural pioneer as well, becoming one of the first black male solo singers to find success singing love songs. Eckstine also led a modernist big band that’s become legendary as an incubator for the revolutionary bebop movement of the 1940s. We’ll hear some of his notable recordings from the 1940s through the 1960s.
It’s Mr. B: The Great Billy Eckstine, coming up next on Afterglow
MUSIC - BILLY ECKSTINE, “THAT’S ALL”
Billy Eckstine in 1958 singing Alan Brandt and Bob Haymes’ “That’s All,'' from Eckstine’s LP IMAGINATION, an album that marked Eckstine’s return to a jazz setting after years of making records in a more commercial context. That featured West Coast jazz musicians such as trumpeters Pete Candoli and Don Fagerquist, saxophonist/flutist Bud Shank, pianist Gerald Wiggins, and arranger Pete Rugolo.
MUSIC CLIP - EARL 'FATHA' HINES, “I LOVE YOU BECAUSE I LOVE YOU “
Mark Chilla here on Afterglow. On this show, we’re exploring the life and career of singer Billy Eckstine.
Billy Eckstine was a cultural pioneer, a black male singer who established his popularity singing love songs in the segregated world of mid-20th-century America. His dapper good looks, majestic baritone, and air of self-respect made him a model for black pride long before the term was coined. His iconic stature inspired a number of nicknames, but the one that stuck was simply “Mr. B.”
Critic Will Friedwald has said had a voice that was, quote, “the perfect instrument to convey the often extreme metaphors of the Great American Songbook: the depth of the ocean, the height of the sky, the distance to the moon. Here is a sound so moving that God must have been working overtime when He created it.” end quote.
Billy Eckstine was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on July 8, 1914. He was the product of an interracial background, and he grew up in a middle-class setting. He was barely out of his teens when he began to break into the professional world of music in the 1930s. By the end of the decade, he’d been recruited as a vocalist for one of the era’s high-profile orchestras, led by pianist Earl Hines.
For the rest of his life, Eckstine would draw on songs written during this initial period of his career. But there was one genre that he did not care for, yet would be ceaselessly identified with on the strength of a few hits—the blues. Eckstine once told Metronome Magazine, “I hate blues, you can’t do anything with them.” Yet the blues proved to be a mixed blessing, for Eckstine did quite well with them commercially. One of his most popular recordings with the Hines band was a blues number called “Jelly, Jelly,” co-written by Hines and Eckstine.
Let’s hear it now. This is Billy Eckstine and Earl Hines’ orchestra in 1940 with “Jelly, Jelly” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - EARL HINES AND HIS ORCHESTRA, FEAT. BILLY ECKSTINE, “JELLY, JELLY”
MUSIC - EARL HINES AND HIS ORCHESTRA, FEAT. BILLY ECKSTINE, “SKYLARK”
Billy Eckstine with the Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer song “Skylark” and the original blues number “Jelly, Jelly,” performed there with Earl Hines’ orchestra in 1942 and 1940, respectively.
MUSIC CLIP - BILLY ECKSTINE AND HIS ORCHESTRA, “OPUS X”
Billy Eckstine left the Earl Hines orchestra in 1943 to form his own big band. This band would later become recognized as an important incubator for the new jazz that was evolving in the mid-1940s called bebop. Eckstine’s orchestra was one of the first large ensembles to feature a modernist edge, and many young players who went on to greater fame passed through its ranks, including Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, and Art Blakey.
Although he’s remembered today as a singer, Eckstine thought of himself as a more well-rounded musician. He learned to play trumpet and valve trombone, and took pride in fronting this talented vanguard group. He had worked with both Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in the final few months of his time with Earl Hines, and so when he broke out on his own, he wanted his own band to have an adventurous sound.
At the same time, he continued to croon ballads that built on the reputation he’d begun to develop with Hines, including one ballad that he wrote called “I Want To Talk About You.”
Let’s hear that one now. This is Billy Eckstine with “I Want To Talk About You,” on Afterglow
MUSIC - BILLY ECKSTINE AND HIS ORCHESTRA, “I WANT TO TALK ABOUT YOU”
MUSIC - BILLY ECKSTINE AND HIS ORCHESTRA, “BLOWING THE BLUES AWAY”
Billy Eckstine in 1944 with his so-called “legendary big band.” That was “Blowin’ the Blues Away”. Dizzy Gillespie was featured there on trumpet, along with tenor saxophonists Mr. Gene Ammons and Mr. Dexter Gordon. Before that, we heard his original ballad “I Want To Talk About You,” which would become a jazz standard on the strength of John Coltrane’s recording of it nearly 20 years later.
The legendary Billy Eckstine big band proved to be commercially unsustainable—years later Eckstine jokingly used an epithet to describe how his orchestra had nearly starved him. Part of the problem stemmed from the poor sound quality of his label’s wartime pressings, and the challenges that all big bands faced in the period immediately following the end of World War II. But the band’s legacy as modernist pioneers endures to this day.
We’ll hear two more tracks that show both the propulsive and lyrical qualities of the band. This next track in particular features the drumming talents of Art Blakey and a tenor saxophone solo by Gene Ammons. This is Billy Eckstine and his big band with “I Love The Rhythm in a Riff,” on Afterglow:
MUSIC - BILLY ECKSTINE AND HIS ORCHESTRA, “I LOVE THE RHYTHM IN A RIFF”
MUSIC - BILLY ECKSTINE AND HIS ORCHESTRA, “A COTTAGE FOR SALE”
Billy Eckstine with his big band performing “Cottage For Sale” and “I Love the Rhythm in a Riff” in 1945, from the CD THE LEGENDARY BIG BAND.
MUSIC CLIP - BILLY ECKSTINE AND HIS ORCHESTRA, “COOL BREEZE”
We’ll have more from the legendary singer and bandleader Billy Eckstine in just a bit, stay with us.
I’m Mark Chilla, and you’re listening to Afterglow
MUSIC CLIP - BILLY ECKSTINE AND HIS ORCHESTRA, “SECOND BALCONY JUMP”
MUSIC CLIP - BILLY ECKSTINE AND HIS ORCHESTRA, “MR. CHIPS”
Welcome back to Afterglow, I’m Mark Chilla. We’ve been highlighting the life and career of legendary African-American singer and bandleader Billy Eckstine this hour.
After the demise of his pioneering and modernist big-band in the late 1940s, Billy Eckstine found great success as a solo singer on the MGM label. He was also frequently rumored to be in consideration for film roles, possibly co-starring with Lena Horne. His idol status was also beginning to grow. He gained a reputation for his well-tailored wardrobe—he once had a battle of the suits with bandleader Duke Ellington while they were sharing a concert stand, and he even marketed a shirt-collar called “the Mr. B collar.” Fan pandemonium often surrounded his appearances, and his young fans were dubbed “Billy Soxers,” (a play on “bobby soxers” name associated with Frank Sinatra fandom).
However, this very idol status phenomenon ended up causing a backlash for Eckstine. Some people became outraged when a photo appeared in a 1950 issue of Life showing a number of white female fans clustered around the singer, one of them clinging to his chest. Although Eckstine continued to enjoy some commercial renown, the negative reaction that ensued showed that America was nowhere near ready for a popular Black male singer whose appeal crossed racial lines. But the MGM years were good overall for Eckstine and produced a wealth of stellar recordings, both in ballads featuring strings and jazzier contexts.
We’ll hear examples of each in this next set. First up, this is Billy Eckstine in 1950 with the song “I Apologize,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - BILLY ECKSTINE, “I APOLOGIZE“
MUSIC - BILLY ECKSTINE, “CARAVAN”
Two MGM recordings from singer Billy Eckstine. Just now, we heard him in 1948 alongside Hugo Winterhalter’s Orchestra and the Quartones with Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol’s “Caravan.” Before that, in 1950 with the ballad “I Apologize,” with arrangements by Pete Rugolo.
Billy Eckstine collaborated on occasion with other singers and bandleaders. One of those collaborations was with singer Sarah Vaughan, whom he helped bring to fame in the 1940s. The two of them recorded an LP of all Irving Berlin songs together in 1957. He also partnered with the Count Basie Orchestra on an album together in 1959.
First in this next set is one of the four tracks he laid down with Woody Herman in 1951 for the MGM label. This is Billy Eckstine and Woody Herman, with a lighthearted, bantering meditation on life called “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” on Afterglow:
MUSIC - BILLY ECKSTINE, “LIFE IS JUST A BOWL OF CHERRIES”
MUSIC - BILLY ECKSTINE AND SARAH VAUGHAN, “ALWAYS”
MUSIC - BILLY ECKSTINE AND COUNT BASIE, “BLUES, THE MOTHER OF SIN”
Billy Eckstine with Count Basie’s big band performing “Blues, the Mother of Sin”, from their 1959 album BASIE AND ECKSTINE INC. Before that, we heard Eckstine with Sarah Vaughan and the song “Always,” from their 1957 tribute album to Irving Berlin. And starting that set, Eckstine with Woody Herman’s band in 1951 with “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries.”
Billy Eckstine made an ill-advised stint at RCA in the mid-1950s, where he, like many other vocalists of the big-band era, was forced to deal with the advent of rock ‘n roll, resulting in a truly unfortunate single titled “Condemned For Life With a Rock ‘n Roll Wife.” After this, the singer returned to more jazz-friendly settings, first briefly for the EmArcy label, and the later for a long and successful stint on the Roulette label.
Let’s hear a track from his Roulette years now. This is a live recording from 1960 in Las Vegas, featured on the LP No Cover, No Minimum. This is Billy Eckstine with “Moonlight In Vermont,” on Afterglow
MUSIC - BILLY ECKSTINE, “MOONLIGHT IN VERMONT”
MUSIC - BILLY ECKSTINE, “A FELICIDADE”
Billy Eckstine in 1963 with the bossa nova tune “Felicidade.” That recording was made in Rio De Janeiro, and was likely one of the first recordings of a bossa nova song by an American singer. Before that, the standard “Moonlight In Vermont” performed there live in Las Vegas in 1960 from Eckstine’s Roulette album No Cover, No Minimum.
Billy Eckstine continued performing for the rest of his life, though his recording activities ceased after stints with Motown and other labels in the 1960s and 70s, an era that produced few memorable tracks. He died in 1993 at the age of 78, nearly a year after suffering a stroke onstage during a concert. Mr. B was gone, but as a bandleader and a singer, his place in jazz history had been firmly established decades before.
I’ll close out this edition of Afterglow with something from one of his last great albums, titled The Modern Sound of Mr. B from 1964. It’s an album where he teamed up with Quincy Jones, a producer 20 years his junior.
Here is Billy Eckstine with “Satin Doll,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - BILLY ECKSTINE, “SATIN DOLL”
The Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, and Johnny Mercer standard “Satin Doll,” performed there by the great Billy Eckstine on his 1964 album The Modern Sound Of Mr. B.
And thanks for tuning in to this Billy Eckstine edition of Afterglow.
MUSIC CLIP - JOHN COLTRANE, “I WANT TO TALK ABOUT YOU”
This episode was co-written and co-produced by WFIU’s jazz director David Brent Johnson. The executive producer is John Bailey.
Afterglow is part of the educational mission of Indiana University and produced by WFIU Public Radio in beautiful Bloomington, Indiana.
Playlists for this and other Afterglow programs are available on our website. That’s at indianapublicmedia.org/afterglow.
I’m Mark Chilla, and join me next week for our mix of Vocal Jazz and popular song from the Great American Songbook, here on Afterglow