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.

 

COPYRIGHT © 2015 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

 

A Reckoning for the Queen of Soul

Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin

By David Ritz

Little, Brown and Company, 2014

If “soul” is a decision to reveal rather than conceal Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, has long deserved a thorough critical examination of her storied life and career. 1998’s facile autobiography From the Roots, written with biographer David Ritz, was definitely not it. As Ritz reveals in his 2014 Franklin biography Respect Franklin was very guarded about the depth of her story revealed in Roots and the result was a bland, willfully distorted depiction. As the primary writer Franklin spent more time describing food and outfits, and dismissing other singers, than she did discussing her most compelling asset—her musical talent.

                    Copyright   © 2014 Little, Brown and Company

                   Copyright © 2014 Little, Brown and Company

She strangely breezed through her mother’s unexpected departure at the age of six, her teenage pregnancies, her father the Reverend C.L. Franklin’s controversial behavior, Columbia Records’ failure to mold her into a pop/jazz chanteuse, or even the ongoing pressure for an aging singer to remain relevant in the youth-driven pop market. Rather than letting you into her hopes, fears, and aspirations during these important intimate touchstones she withheld them. The resulting tale was slight and strangely soulless.

A complex singer deserves a commensurate biography. Mark Bego’s Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul (originally published in 1989; revised in 2012) which primarily relies on secondary source materials, is an adequate chronological overview of her career including sales figures, awards, reviews and Franklin’s comments from interviews. Matt Dobkin wrote a briefer but more probing musical analysis of Franklin in his chronicle of the recording of her greatest album 1967’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You in a 2009 book of the same name. Dobkin sprinkled the book with insights on her career beyond this creative pinnacle but did not aspire to cover her entire life.

Ritz’s Respect goes further than any existing book in unpacking Franklin’s life and musical legacy. His unflinchingly honest portrait of Franklin—informed by Ritz’s interviews with her family, including her brother Cecil, sister Carolyn, and cousin and Franklin background singer Brenda Corbett, among others; her former booking agent Ruth Bowen; former record producers; and other singers (i.e. Ray Charles, Etta James, Carmen McRae)—is an honest, nuanced work that conveys multiple facets of her life. He presents her, warts and all, while still conveying fundamental respect for her artistic achievements. After reading the book I felt that Ritz’s introductory claim that “I have love and compassion for her as a sister and a believer. I stand in awe of her artistry” was credible.

Franklin publicly accused Ritz of writing a hatchet job. Based on his depiction of her as having controlling tendencies rooted in pride, vanity, and insecurity, this reaction is unsurprising. What Ritz does throughout Respect is walk readers through her life carefully exploring her family dynamics, chronicling her prodigious early musical gifts, and the ways these manifested in her first adult professional phase at Columbia Records.

Carmen McRae, Etta James, and producer Clyde Otis’s commentaries are particularly illuminating about her breakthrough moments and her struggle to gain an audience in the early ‘60s. From a musical perspective, it’s interesting how artists in other genres noticed and appreciated Franklin’s artistry, even though she was an unproven upstart.  Franklin should be grateful for this critical attention to the oft-maligned Columbia years; Ritz is one of the few writers to acknowledge that this was not an entirely fallow period.

He also covers her time recording her first Atlantic album (I Never Loved a Man) at Muscle Shoals thoroughly, including the vivid impressions producer Jerry Wexler and the studio’s musicians had to her advanced piano playing and arranging. Franklin’s ex-husband Ted White infamously clashed with some of the musicians and his tumultuous marriage to Franklin is addressed by a range of witnesses.

By the early ‘70s Franklin was the most consistently popular female singer of the late ‘60s-early 70s and a multi-Grammy award winning superstar. Despite her success her insecurities about her weight, and anxieties about other singers stealing her thunder, including her sisters and newer singers like Natalie Cole, started to creep into her public persona. This began a cycle of her periodic announcements about new business ventures and film roles that never came to fruition, fluff stories about Franklin’s diet and exercise regime,, and countless stories about unidentified men she was courting.  Each pointed toward an apparently pressing need to remain relevant. By the mid-70s her albums and singles were slipping in quality and sales. The story of her scooping Curtis Mayfield’s Sparkle soundtrack from her sister Carolyn is especially harrowing. After that 1976 triumph her Atlantic Records period lapsed into obscurity.

Though these unscrupulous behaviors populate the book Ritz notes many episodes of generosity ranging from a series of donations to civil rights causes to Franklin giving her 1972 Grammy to the great R&B singer Esther Phillips as a gesture of acknowledgment. I suspect there’s enough gossip about Franklin from Ritz’s vast range of sources that he could have easily reduced Franklin to an emotionally challenged shrew. But tonally Respect is characterized by an ongoing passion for Franklin to triumph. As he states in the introduction he admires and respects Franklin deeply.

This sincerity remains especially important as he describes her declining career in the mid-to-late ‘70s and her rebound with trendier material at Arista Records in the early ‘80s. Ritz’s sources consistently note how Franklin’s resentment of other female singers intensified as a generation of new mega pop divas (i.e. Madonna, Whitney Houston) emerged.  She was often less than gracious competing with them rather than appreciating their good fortune.

Her desire to stay on top also leads her to fall under the commercial spell of record mogul and producer Clive Davis. He helped keep her current to a point but mostly steered her away from her gospel, blues and jazz roots toward pop ephemera. Though there is limited evidence of Davis acting as a Svengali in Franklin’s career the stylistic grab bag her Arista albums certainly evokes the kind of crass commercialism he trumpeted in his autobiography The Soundtrack of My Life.

As long as the industry showered her with awards (she won five Grammies from 1982-89) and reiterated her Queenly status the less able she was to view her own talents with clarity. Important personal issues shaping her life during the ‘80s included her struggle to find suitable relationship, her grief supporting her comatose father who was shot during a burglary and struggled through illness for years, and her anxieties about travel, which led to legal and financial issues.

If anything what emerges from Respect is the inability of talent itself to shield artists from the emotional minefields of life—relationships, family, career setbacks, etc. as well as its ability to sustain someone emotionally. Franklin appears as a dark, troubled, almost unknowable soul who channels her energies into her music. There is clearly immense pressure on her to be “Aretha Franklin”—a daunting task when one considers how difficult it would be for anyone to approximate the impact of “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “Ain’t No Way,” “Natural Woman”—seminal recordings made almost 40 years ago. Similarly, Franklin’s LPs were popular but never sold at the epic multi-million levels Madonna, Houston, Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, and Celine Dion once sold at their commercial heights.

Artistically, it’s hard not to agree with Wexler and Ritz’s point of view that Franklin could extend her stature by returning to the jazz standards she tackled at the beginning of her career. With her wealth of life experience and professional seasoning American Songbook standards seem like more suitable vehicles for her than the pop confections currently populating mainstream radio.   Giving up pop crossover efforts might restore her artistic mettle. Despite the late career triumph of “A Rose is Still a Rose” and special moments like her surprising performance of “Nessun Dorma” at the 1998 Grammies and her dynamic 1998 VH1 Divas performance her best work seems long behind her. But this does not have to be the case.

In 2014 she released Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, a cover album of songs popularized other female singers including nods to Etta James (“At Last”), The Supremes (“You Keep Me Hangin’ On”), and Adele (“Rolling in the Deep”). Though some critics reviewed it favorably and it sold moderately well no one sees her versions as definitive and it is all rather perfunctory. Surely she he has more to offer us than a jazzy rehash of “Nothing Compares 2 U.” 

From Ritz’s account I sense that Franklin lacks clear artistic direction and suffers from an acute restlessness. Perhaps she needs an artistic mentor she can trust. Someone who can help her make smarter choices, but who is willing to be honest with her about the best ways to employ her voice (its diminished in range and power) and help her realize she does not need to compete with Katy Perry or Beyoncé.

If anything she might borrow a page from Natalie Cole a stylistic protégé of Franklin who has always given her respect even when Franklin was dismissive of her talents. Cole morphed from a slick pop-soul singer to a respected jazz-oriented interpreter in the early 1990s. Similarly, Franklin’s peer Barbra Streisand has recorded several artistically accomplished, commercially successful albums (2003’s The Movie Album, 2009’s Love is the Answer, and 2011’s What Matter Most) featuring adult material suited to her talents that bucks trends. Though Tony Bennett’s series of Duets albums may have run their course they paired him with (mostly) suitable partners (including Franklin) and found him a sizable audience.

Franklin deserves the respect she famously sang about, and Ritz provides it. He appreciates her art and makes the unusual choice to end the book with a deeply felt personal wish list to Franklin. Respect articulates complexity of her life and its haunting role in her music; it also offers a moral imperative for her to be fully present and authentic in both.

COPYRIGHT © 2015 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.