Monday, August 30, 2010

Mr. B

The first time I heard the voice of Billy Eckstine, Billy Eckstine wasn't even doing the singing. In 2003, I learned that my "intimate" knowledge of singers and songs from a bygone era, of the Great American Songbook and it's greatest performers, turned out to be about as intimate as Bill and Hillary Clinton. That was the year my wife purchased for me a Rat Pack DVD, which I knew I would enjoy immensely. I wasn't expecting to be introduced to one of the most gorgeous voices in the world.

The DVD was "Live And Swingin'" and featured a 1965 St. Louis performance of the Rat Pack, minus the by-then excommunicated Peter Lawford. A standard part of Sammy Davis, Jr.'s shtick from his earliest days as a performer was impressions of other singers, and one of his regular impressions was Billy Eckstine. Davis, exaggerating Mr. Eckstine's brilliant elocution, crooned the alternate lyric to the original Johnny Mercer line in "One For My Baby (One For The Road)", "Eyyyyyyeeee could telllll you a-lllot, but you've got to be, trooo-ooo--ewwwwww to your coooo-ewwwwwd, soo-ewwwww make it one for myyeeee bway-bweeeeeeee...." It was funny, but I wasn't exactly sure why. After all, who the heck was Billy Eckstine?

A short time after watching the DVD, I got a more proper introduction to the man I later learned was nicknamed "Mr. B." in another unusual forum, one of cable television's Music Choice channels. This particular channel played standards, traditional pop songs and their singers; Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Andy Williams and others. I turned it on one night in an effort to get my daughter, two-years-old at the time, to go to sleep, figuring it would help since I had sung many of those songs to her since the day she was born. The second song we heard that evening was Billy Eckstine's cover of "I Apologize." Immediately, I got Sammy Davis's joke. The lyric was pronounced with the precision of a heart surgeon, some of the vowels large enough for a dozen baby grands ("Eyyy-eee a-paaaawwwhllll-oh-gi-eeeeezz), but Mr. Eckstine's voice knocked me out. The richness and depth of his tone were akin to that of an opera star, yet his voice was warm, playful, and seductive.

There wasn't much thought given to Billy Eckstine for a while after that except during repeated viewings of the Rat Packers - our little girl found them much more enthralling than kiddie super group The Wiggles, and who can blame her? One day, while the toddler was thrilling her mother by repeating one of Dean Martin's drinking jokes, I decided for no other reason than the hell of it to do some research. That is, I decided to Google Mr. Eckstine - what passes for research these days. I was flabbergasted. Billy Eckstine was at least as popular with music fans as Sinatra and Bing Crosby from the mid-1940's through the early 50's. I also learned that Mr. B. was a black man - some called him the "Sepia Sinatra", derogatory without being derogatory I suppose. That makes his popularity astonishing considering that era of our racial history. In fact, women of all colors stopped swooning to Sinatra in the late 40's in part because they started swooning to Billy, scandalous indeed.

Later still, I discovered that Mr. B. was also a bandleader, and though its time was short, it may have contained the greatest assemblage of jazz talent of any full-time orchestra. Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis were in Mr. B.'s band at various times. So were Dexter Gordon, Fats Navarro, Gene Ammons and Art Blakey, not as well know as Diz, Bird, and Miles but just as talented. In the vernacular of the time, Billy's "girl singer" was a young Sarah Vaughn. And, of course, fronting the orchestra was Mr. B.'s golden voice, selling millions of ballads in between the band's ground breaking be-bop tunes.

Just last week, while (shameless plug warning!) hosting the "Johnny Mercer Hit Parade" on STAR 1400 (AM) and, I discovered that the song containing one of Mr. Mercer's most beautiful lyrics, "Skylark", was premiered on the radio by none other than Billy Eckstine, singing for the orchestra of jazz piano legend Earl "Fatha" Hines. Seemingly every time I turn around, something else Mr. B. did first or at least before a lot of other folks keeps finding it's way to me. I'd like to know more, but there's a problem.

These days on the so-called "Adult Standards" radio stations where you can still hear the voices The Chairman, Mr. Cole, even Perry Como for crying out loud, you never hear Billy Eckstine's baritone. When folks talk about the great jazz bands and the pioneers of American music, we hear much about Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Artie Shaw, and a lot about the guys who were in Mr. B.'s band. Never do we hear about Mr. B. himself, even though for a time he was more popular than all those guys.

Did Billy Eckstine do something, or perhaps not do something, that caused everyone but ardent music historians to forget him? Why don't we remember this man, an African-American who was only supposed to sell what at the time were called "race records", but instead rivaled perhaps the two biggest white singing stars in the nation's history?

I'd love to find out.

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