William Clarence Eckstine (July 8, 1914 – March 8, 1993) was an American jazz and pop singer, and a bandleader of the swing era. He was noted for his rich, resonant, almost operatic bass-baritone voice. The New York Times described him as an "influential band leader" whose "suave bass-baritone" and "full-throated, sugary approach to popular songs inspired singers like Joe Williams, Arthur Prysock and Lou Rawls."
Born in Pittsburgh but raised in Washington, D.C., Eckstine began singing at the age of seven and entered many amateur talent shows. He had also planned on a football career, though after breaking his collar bone, he made music his focus. After working his way west to Chicago during the late '30s, Eckstine was hired by Earl Hines to join his Grand Terrace Orchestra in 1939. Though white bands of the era featured males singing straight-ahead romantic ballads, black bands were forced to stick to novelty or blues vocal numbers until the advent of Eckstine and Herb Jeffries (from Duke Ellington's Orchestra).
Though several of Eckstine's first hits with Hines were novelties like "Jelly, Jelly" and "The Jitney Man," he also recorded several straight-ahead songs, including the hit "Stormy Monday." By 1943, he gained a trio of stellar band mates -- Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Sarah Vaughan. After forming his own big band that year, he hired all three and gradually recruited still more modernist figures and future stars: Wardell Gray, Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, Kenny Dorham, Fats Navarro, and Art Blakey, as well as arrangers Tadd Dameron and Gil Fuller.
The Billy Eckstine Orchestra was the first bop big-band group, and its leader reflected bop innovations by stretching his vocal harmonics into his normal ballads. Despite the group's modernist slant, Eckstine hit the charts often during the mid-'40s, with Top Ten entries including "A Cottage for Sale" and "Prisoner of Love." On the group's frequent European and American tours, Eckstine also played trumpet, valve trombone, and guitar.
Though he was forced to give up the band in 1947 (Gillespie formed his own bop big band that same year), Eckstine made the transition to string-filled balladry with ease. He recorded more than a dozen hits during the late '40s, including "My Foolish Heart" and "I Apologize." He was also quite popular in Britain, hitting the Top Ten there twice during the '50s -- "No One But You" and "Gigi" -- as well as several duet entries with Sarah Vaughan.
Culturally Eckstine was a fashion icon. He was famous for his "Mr. B. Collar"- a high roll collar that formed a "B" over a Windsor-knotted tie. The collars were worn by many a hipster in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Eckstine made numerous appearances on television variety shows, including on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Nat King Cole Show, The Tonight Show with Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Johnny Carson, The Merv Griffin Show, The Art Linkletter Show, The Joey Bishop Show, The Dean Martin Show, The Flip Wilson Show, and Playboy After Dark. He also performed as an actor in the TV sitcom Sanford and Son, and in such films as Skirts Ahoy, Let's Do It Again, and Jo Jo Dancer.
Eckstine returned to his jazz roots occasionally as well, recording with Vaughan, Count Basie, and Quincy Jones for separate LPs, and the 1960 live LP No Cover, No Minimum featured him taking a few trumpet solos as well. He recorded several albums for Mercury and Roulette during the early '60s (his son Ed was the president of Mercury), and he appeared on Motown for a few standards albums during the mid-'60s. After recording very sparingly during the '70s,
In 1984 Eckstine recorded his penultimate album, I Am a Singer, arranged and conducted by Angelo DiPippo and featuring Toots Thielemans on harmonica. In November 1986, Eckstine recorded with saxophonist Benny Carter for his 1987 album Billy Eckstine Sings with Benny Carter. Eckstine made his final recordings for Motorcity Records, a label for ex-Motown artists founded by Ian Levine.
|Sarah Vaughan with Billy|
Eckstine suffered a stroke while performing in Salina, Kansas, in April 1992, and never performed again. Though his speech improved in the hospital, Eckstine had a heart attack, and died a few months later on March 8, 1993, aged 78. Eckstine's final word was "Basie.
(Compiled and edited from bio by John Bush @ AllMusic & Wikipedia)