Thursday, September 9, 2010

How a Skylark And a (Mr.) B Broke Down a Barrier

When Bix Beiderbecke, who made more beautiful sounds emanate from brass instruments than perhaps any other human, died at 28 from an overdose of degenerate behavior, no one would have guessed that his passing would eventually help tear down a wall of musical racial separation. Even more unlikely was that help in bringing down that wall came from a guy from segregated Savannah, Georgia and a guy from Indiana, home of the modern Ku Klux Klan, or that the voice which blasted the wall away had bi-racial grandparents native to the bigoted nation's capitol.

Bix, self-taught cornet king back when most everyone could distinguish the mellow cornet from louder cousin trumpet, was the idol of many musicians in the 1920's. One idol who got the chance to play alongside Bix was young Hoagy Carmichael, recent graduate of his hometown Indiana University law school. No matter how badly Bix treated himself - the human body was not designed to consume even half of the notoriously nasty Prohibition bootleg gin Bix supposedly ingested - Hoagy was naturally enthralled by the chance to play alongside God. He was so hooked that two of Mr. Carmichael's prized possessions had some Bix in them; Hoagy's first child, a son (luckily) named Hoagy Bix, and a cornet mouthpiece that once belonged to the king himself. The mouthpiece was a mainstay of Hoagy's suit pocket until Mr. Carmichael passed it on to a lyricist, a younger fan of Bix with whom Hoagy occasionally worked - John Herndon Mercer.

Between the first time he worked with Johnny in 1933 and when they would come together again around 1940, Mr. Carmichael wrote some melodies based on Bix's solos - or perhaps they were actual Bix solos as eminent jazz biographer Gene Lees once suggested - in hopes of making a Broadway musical about Bix. When it didn't happen, Hoagy gave one of the melodies to Mr. Mercer to write a lyric for it. It only took John almost a year. Mr. Mercer, sometimes ready with a lyric in as little as half-an-hour, struggled with the melody so much that Hoagy later claimed he had forgotten about it when, one day out of the blue, Mercer presented him with "Skylark."

It was kind of a big deal, big enough to be on the Billboard pop charts four times under four different 1942 alone, with three of those in one month! Glenn Miller (with Ray Eberle on vocals), Harry James (w/Helen Forrest), and Dinah Shore were all on the same Billboard chart with the exact same song in May of '42. Bing Crosby (of course) would have a hit with it two months later. But before fans bought copies of those records, something happened with "Skylark" that perhaps had never before occurred; it's inaugural to the white entertainment world over the radio was given by black artists, among them Billy Eckstine.

Mr. B., he of the mixed-race background, began singing with the man many consider the first modern jazz pianist, Earl "Fatha" Hines, in 1939. By then, Hines and his orchestra were household names among white and black audiences thanks to an eleven-year run as "the most broadcast band in America" from their home base, the Grand Terrace Ballroom of the Al Capone-controlled Sunset Cafe in Chicago. It was no longer the Grand Terrace Orchestra after 1940; Hines thought he was underpaid and could say so aloud without fear of bullets now that Capone was long gone. Still, the Hines band could easily get a radio gig, and during one particular gig on the air in '42, they appear to have been the first band to play the latest Carmichael/Mercer tune into the ether, likely the first time a black singer and band debuted a mainstream (meaning white) pop song on the radio.

It isn't known whether a recording of that radio performance exists, but the Hines band's studio recording of "Skylark" was just as "sweet" and had just as much of a pop feel as the Glenn Miller version. As Mr. Eckstine crooned the lyric, he was even accompanied by an apparent "skylark", a very un-Hines-like flute for crying out loud, half a decade before flute tweets helped carry Nat King Cole through "Nature Boy." The mellow sax solo during the bridge wasn't as jazzy as Harry James's treatment of the "Skylark" melody with his muted trumpet. In other words, it wasn't exactly the best version of the song. But it was solid, and it helped cement Mr. B. as the "Sepia Sinatra", a ridiculous racial moniker common to the era no doubt. There is also no doubt that a lot of women began swooning to Billy Eckstine during the war.

Hines and Eckstine's recording of "Skylark" didn't sell as well as those of their white contemporaries - their big hit song of '42 was their own composition "Stormy Monday Blues", number one on Billboard's new Harlem Hit Parade, the non-P.C. precursor to the R&B chart. But Fatha and Mr. B. proved to Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael, and other songwriters that you didn't need Bing Crosby, Benny Goodman, or other performers of pallor premiere your song on the radio to grab an audience's attention. Nat Cole is remembered by most as the first black pop singer with mass appeal among white and black fans. Record sales numbers these days may reflect that, but I think Nat himself would remind us that Billy Eckstine beat him by a few years, with some help from Mr. Mercer and Mr. Carmichael and Mr. Bix.

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