Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Mr. B, and his vibrato

Styles of singing change with the public's tastes, a truism since David, et al sang in the Psalms (or, if you're an atheist, since Ann Miller sang "Prehistoric Man").  To this day, I don't know what any red-blooded woman saw in Rudy Vallee or any of his 1920's megaphone-toting crooning clones, but they adored Rudy until Bing Crosby came along and made it cool for manly men to sing like men.

Pardon me for an aside.  Seriously, Google?  The word 'Bing' comes up as a spelling error?  Really? 

Around 1953, when Billy Eckstine slowly fell down the popular music charts he had topped for much of the previous decade, was it because fans were tired of his smoothness?  Did his voice change, as happens to most of us as we get older, and fall out of favor?  Or, as previously noted, did a portion of the public stop buying Mr. B's records because a picture of him being embraced by a white woman, and fawned-over by other white women, was published in a 1950 issue of Life magazine?  One jazz website doesn't mention the photograph, saying Mr. B's style indeed changed.  It was a slight change, but the AllAboutJazz.com claims it was enough to where it caused his popularity to wane.  But is this true?

The biography of Billy Eckstine at All About Jazz hypothesizes on the decline of his record sales.   "By 1950 he was MGM's top-selling artist and was selling out major venues like New York's Paramount Theater. However, unlike Nat ‘King’ Cole who followed him into the pop charts, Eckstine’s singing, especially his exaggerated vibrato, sounded increasingly mannered and he was unable to sustain his recording success throughout the decade." Is this true?  

Answering this question objectively will be tough; I am a devout Mr. B. fan.  I haven't heard any evidence that he went from sexy, velvety tones to the sound of that cartoon where the character's uvula looks like a punching bag.  I am also not a jazz snob - there are plenty of folks who would tell me I have no business judging what's good and what isn't.  Thus, I will try to listen as fairly as possible and do my best to be the man who calls it right down the middle.

First, some early Billy Eckstine, when he first began to ascend the charts, even though it was under the name of someone else's band.  
Mr. Eckstine co-wrote "Stormy Monday Blues" and recorded it with the band of Earl "Fatha" Hines in 1942, just a couple years before Mr. B. started his own orchestra with many of the guys from Hines's band.  Some of Billy's vocal signatures - the bending and shaping of notes, the smooth transitions from the highs to the lows of Mr. B's enormous range, the vibrato - are easily heard.  Billy's style on this record and his other popular recording with the Hines band, Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark", went 'national' during the early 40's thanks to Hines's weekly radio broadcasts from Chicago's Grand Terrace Ballroom. 

Mr B's popularity spiked after he disbanded his own orchestra and went solo, largely due to the ballads that featured his lady-killing vocals.  A string of big singles and sold-out concerts over a four-year span followed, with one of  his last hits coming in 1951, a song that was a blockbuster two decades earlier for another swoon maker; Bing Crosby.

"I Apologize" features the lush string orchestra common to a lot of 1950's hit pop recordings.  As for the vocals, what stands out for me is the way Mr. B treats the letter 'O'.  His enunciation of the word "apologize" and words such as "sorry" and "bottom" have a short 'o' sound elongated just enough to where it sounds like "awww"; "I uh-paww-li-i-gize."  The first time I heard words sung this way was not from Mr. B himself - I had never heard of Billy until eight years ago.  It was from Sammy Davis, Jr., whose signature singer impressions included a good, but comically exaggerated Billy Eckstine (in listening to Mr. Davis's earlier recordings, it's obvious he borrowed heavily from Billy in forming his own singing style).  

Was there a difference between Mr. B's 1942 vocals and those from almost a decade later?  No doubt.  But in 1951, Billy Eckstine was still among the best-selling artists in the country, something that would not be true just a couple years later.  All About Jazz says his vibrato became "more mannered" as the 1950's progressed, so I'd like to listen to a song from later in the decade.  It was a duet with Mr. Eckstine and Sarah Vaughn, one of the best singers in the history of song, and yet it didn't sell much when it was released in 1957.

In Billy's portions of "Passing Strangers", the way he sings, at least to my ear, matches the tone of the song itself.  There is no discernible difference between his vibrato here and that on "I Apologize."  What seems to be clear, based on sales numbers, is that this style of song, at least as performed by Mr. B, had fallen somewhat out of favor with the general public within a few years, though songs in the similar vein continued to sell well for Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra during the late 50's.  

It is also true that Sinatra and Cole were also well known for their up-tempo numbers - they loved to "swing, baby!"  Cole also brought to the table his preeminence as a jazz pianist.  But lest we forget, Mr. B was a pretty fair musician as well.
This was part of Billy's appearance on Nat's very last variety show in 1957.  Mr. B could swing, as if his fans didn't know that already.  He proved it again three years later jumping several swingin' songs in one of my favorite Eckstine albums, "No Cover, No Minimum", a live recording of his nightclub act.  Yet much of his recording work of the 1950's wasn't swingin' at all.  Most of his recordings seemed to be the ballads that were his bread and butter in the late 40's and early 50's, and a lot of the public decided it didn't like the bread and butter as much as it used to.  By the time Mr. B truly swung in the recording studio, in a 1959 album with Count Basie, rock and roll had taken over popular music.

I don't think All About Jazz is correct; Mr. B's voice didn't change, at least no more than any other singer's voices altered with age.  Also, in retrospect, the Life photograph should have had a more immediate impact on Mr. Eckstine's career if it were to have an impact at all, and Billy's record sales didn't start to noticeably decline until at least two years after the picture was published.  But 1952 is when Frank Sinatra began his renaissance as a 'swinger'.  Should Mr. B have swung more, a la Sinatra and his "ring-a-ding-ding" resurrection?  He was capable of doing so, but for whatever reason, did not.  Was that his choice?  The choice of his management?  Lots of questions to examine, but we'll do that another day.  For now, one more from Mr. B, one of the best from "No Cover, No Minimum."

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