Struggling to be heard: Billy Eckstine’s fight to sing

Mr. B: The Music & Life of Billy Eckstine

By Cary Ginell

Hal Leonard Books, 2013

 My entree into Billy Eckstine’s career was Sarah Vaughan, his compatriot in pioneering modern jazz singing and setting the highest bar for vocal lusciousness. Though Eckstine’s robust baritone often reminds listeners of Nat “King” Cole and Johnny Hartman his cavernous vibrato is distinctly his and actually preceded the careers of these, and other black crooners. In Mr. B: The Music & Life of Billy Eckstine, writer and historian Cary Ginell depicts Eckstine as an unheralded pioneer of pre-rock pop for directing the first bebop orchestra, emerging as the first commercially viable black crooner (via his MGM recordings),  and emerging as perhaps the first cross-racial sex symbol in mainstream pop. While Eckstine’s artistry is highly regarded among jazz musicians, his efforts to connect commercially were always contentious. Each artistic triumph was met with resistance. Racism loomed particularly large in his efforts to make an impact as a musician and actor.


Copyright   ©   2013 Hal Leonard Books;  Cove  r Photo   ©  Murray and Phyllis Garrett Family Trust. 

Copyright © 2013 Hal Leonard Books; Cover Photo © Murray and Phyllis Garrett Family Trust. 

After singing with regional big bands Eckstine began his first step toward the national jazz scene singing with the Earl Hines Band. In addition to singing he recruited other musicians, including Vaughan and Dizzy Gillespie.  Eckstine and Vaughan were present during the gestation of bebop, performing alongside instrumental pioneers like Gillespie and Charlie Parker. From 1944-47 he formed and led the first bebop orchestra but several members went solo and big bands were becoming too expensive to maintain. Though he made his initial commercial impact among black audiences in the early 1940s singing blues tunes like “Jelly, Jelly” and “Stormy Monday Blues,” he found the blues limited musically and really longed to sing romantic pop from the 1930s like Bing Crosby. Though he was not opposed to the blues he suspected the music industry of stereotyping black singers by limiting them to the genre.  He broke through this barrier at MGM with luscious renditions of quality standards recorded with top tier arrangers and musicians, a pattern he continued on his LPs for Mercury and Roulette Records. While he was commercially successful as a recording artist and live performer, many critics lamented his supposed shift from jazz to pop, a major contention for Eckstine who resented critics for fetishizing the romance of being a “cult” jazz artist.

 Ginell also reminds readers that he lacked the full-blown crossover appeal of his white counterparts like Sinatra. This was most evident in his stymied attempts to become a film star. The author notes an array of unfulfilled projects, many pairing him with Lena Horne, the other major black crossover star of the time, which never materialized. Additionally, an infamous 1950 Life magazine photo of a white female fan (one of many “Billysoxers”) resting her head laughing on Eckstine’s shoulder did not endear him to a racially divided America.

 Like many singers of his generation Eckstine’s popularity waned in the mid-1950s when he, and other jazz-oriented singers, awkwardly attempted to sing more youthful music usually with poor results artistically and commercially.  He was far more successful recording thematic LPs, including acclaimed sets like 1959’s Basie/Eckstine Inc. and 1960’s concert set No Cover, No Minimum. Eckstine also hit his stride as an entrepreneur through opening several businesses and he was one of the earliest blacks to find an audience in Las Vegas.

 Outside of his career Eckstine, who was raised in a loving family environment in Pittsburgh, was a family man who married twice and raised five children, including two stepsons. Eckstine knew he was a sex symbol and possessed a wandering eye, which ultimately ruined his first marriage, and complicated his second marriage to Carolle Eclkstine. While his adult children acknowledge his infidelities and their parents’ marital challenges in the book they clearly adore and respect him. The array of family photos and the Eckstine children’s comments are one of the book’s highlights. They illuminate Eckstine’s character including his affectionate nicknames for them, his close relationship to Martin Luther King Jr., and his exacting musical standards when his daughter Gina decided to sing. For him taking care of his family was the reward for crossing over to pop. As Eckstine himself vividly stated, “Some creeps said I ‘forsook’ jazz in order to be commercial…I want to take care of my family and give them the things that I think they deserve.”

 In the mid-1960s the commercial heyday of jazz-influenced pop was nearly over and Eckstine made a valiant attempt to stay current by shifting from middle-of the-road (MOR) pop to recording for the black music labels Motown and then Stax. Neither light funk, nor covers of soft rock hits suited him. He spent more time perfecting his golf game, spending time with family, and performing than seeking hits. His final albums were a 1978 Brazilian pop set Momento Brasiliero , 1984’s I Am a Singer, recorded for Kimbo Records, and a collaboration with arranger Benny Carter, 1986’s Billy Eckstine Sings with Benny Carter that garnered him a Vocal Jazz Grammy nomination. In the early 1990s his health was failing and he passed in 1993. 

 Ginell’s brisk and highly readable account of Eckstine’s life and career succeeded in helping me concretize the scope of racism Eckstine navigated in his daily life and as a larger force that interfered with his artistic life.  As a vocalist, bandleader, and musician (he played valve trombone, trumpet, and guitar) Eckstine was arguably more advanced musically than most crooners of his generation. But unlike most of them, including Perry Como, and Sinatra, he had to work his way up through smaller independent labels before reaping the rewards of a major label. And many of his followers, such as Johnny Mathis, benefited more commercially from appropriating elements of his style than he ever achieved.  As a black man Eckstine also risked alienating his audience if he became too popular with white audiences (i.e. the Life photo). Nat “King” Cole experienced a somewhat similar fate when his pioneering variety series was cancelled after Southern stations refused to air as show where he socialized with white artists like Peggy Lee and sponsors were leery of controversy.

 Should the book ever reach a second edition I have a few suggestions. There are several distracting editing errors in the book. Though Ginell includes a rich array of information 188 pages seems short for covering such an important figure.  The book alludes to Eckstine’s pioneering role but I would have liked more discussion of ways his sound and repertoire has surfaced in the work of singers like Johnny Hartman, Roy Hamilton, Ed Townsend, Lou Rawls, Kevin Mahogany, and others.  For example, though the concluding chapter states, “Nobody has recorded a ‘Billy Eckstine Songbook Album’” this is not accurate. Jazz singer and pianist Freddy Cole recorded Freddy Sings Mr B. on HighNote in 2010.

 Despite these quibbles Ginell’s astute attention to racism and his argument that “Billy Eckstine’s talent was timeless” is indisputable. Though Eckstine’s music from the ‘40s is accessible through compilations, and several digital conversions of his Mercury and Roulette albums are in print, Mr. B prompted me to seek out some of his more obscure recordings like 1963’s Modern Sounds of Mr. B. My hope is that works like Ginell’s, and Cole’s musical tribute might lead a company like Mosaic Records or Real Gone Music to reissue more of his work. The trails Eckstine blazed have never fully received their proper notice and keeping his work in print seems like a minimal way to recognize his legacy, and inspire future titans.