Thursday, September 8, 2011

Mr. B. and the women

I haven't seen many pictures of Billy Eckstine, but thus far, this is my favorite.  Page 101 of the April 24, 1950 issue of Life Magazine, the de facto official chronicler of America at the time, shows Mr. B. surrounded by women outside the then-famous New York nightclub Bop City.  It shouldn't be shocking; Billy had been a sex symbol since 1939, when his his smooth-as-honey voice became one of the signature instruments in the influential band of piano legend Earl "Fatha" Hines.  But this was 1950, and the women in the photograph are, obviously, persons of pallor while Mr. B. is, as Life described him using then-common condescension, "a personable, 35-year-old Negro baritone."  One young lady has her head on Billy's shoulder, overcome with emotion as she touches the man she obviously, at the time, believes is the most important in the world.  I often wonder if this picture is one of the reasons Mr. B's star, unlike that of some of his contemporaries, seemed to fade just a few years after its peak, his legacy kept alive today only through the diligence of devoted family members and aficionados of jazz and older music.

It's just a picture, but in the context of the times, it is much more.  Really, the photograph is no different than the images shown around the world when another baritone made the leap from "boy singer" in Tommy Dorsey's orchestra to a crazed solo debut at New York's Paramount Theater.  Frank Sinatra's inaugural was marked more by the deafening throngs of teenaged girls, some wetting their seats as they refused to make way for a fresh audience in those days of multiple daily performances, than by the songs he sang.  The same, hydraulically sinking Paramount stage was shown in another picture from the Billy Eckstine Life layout, young women reaching precariously into the pit for a chance to get a finger on Mr. B's impeccably tailored self.  The photos of Mr. Eckstine are virtually identical to those of Sinatra from seven years earlier.  Except, of course, they weren't. Frank J. Roy, Jr. and John H. Edmonson reminded us of that just a few weeks after Life's feature on Mr. B.

On page 14 of Life's May 15, 1950 issue, Mr. Roy, from Columbus, Georgia, writes that he was "disgusted with Life for printing the pictures of Billy Eckstine and his admirers."  Mr. Edmonson, from Fairfield, Alabama - the same Fairfield that gave us Willie Mays, on the cusp of becoming the best baseball player in the world at the time -  told the magazine, "If that was my daughter she would be lucky to be able to sit down in a week when I finished with her."  It appeared that Life thought better than to print the rest of Mr. Edmonson's letter, presumably because it would be another 40 or 50 years before respectable magazines published such words.

Sure, moms and dads made similar complaints about Sinatra and, in the decades that followed, Elvis and the Beatles.  But given that Mr. Roy and Mr. Edmonson lived in the deep South, their points were clear; no (white) daughter of theirs would be caught placing their heads, hands, or anything else on a (n-word).  To be fair to the South, there were plenty of people in other parts of 1950 America who likely felt the same way. Were those the people who, barely three years after he belted out hit after hit before thousands of delirious "Billysoxers", would virtually knock William Clarence Eckstine off the Billboard hit music charts?

Having devoted white female fans never seemed to affect the popularity of Billy's African-American contemporary, Nat King Cole.  Nat was openly marketed throughout the 1950's by Capitol Records as a way to get your woman to snuggle closer, regardless of the color of your skin.  Nat was not immune to racism - in '56, he was attacked on stage in his native Alabama by a couple of nut jobs.  But enough of white America loved him so much, he was given his own TV variety show, though that show would eventually be brought down by the race card played by sponsors who refused to sign on (one of the guests on Nat's very last TV show; Billy Eckstine).  Nat even had a somewhat-publicized affair with Swedish actress Gunilla Hutton of "Hee Haw" fame, but that dalliance was overshadowed by his death, which came just weeks after he ended the affair.

White women had swooned to Mr. B. at least since he became the first person to sing Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael's 1941 masterpiece "Skylark" on the radio.  They, and lots of other folks of all colors, bought his records in droves, particularly the ballads highlighted by, as Life called them, his "gooey" vocals.  Then, around 1952 or '53, though he continued recording and performing for much of the remaining 40 years of his life, his songs didn't seem to be en vogue anymore.  Billy Eckstine's star did not ascend in the '50's like that of Cole or Tony Bennett or a resurgent Sinatra.  What happened?  Did Mr. B. start singing the wrong songs or did he start singing differently?  Did the arrangements of those songs not change with the era's musical tastes?  Perhaps one of those answers is correct.

Or perhaps the answer, at least in part, is that a picture of a young white woman with her head resting on the shoulder of a black man was published in one of America's biggest magazines in an era when that was taboo.  There were, to my knowledge, no such pictures of Mr. Cole.

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