Billy Eckstine: Rhythm in a Riff

10 Jul

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The 100th anniversary of Billy Eckstine’s birthday passed this week with far less fanfare than the singer once attracted.

Once he rivaled Frank Sinatra in popularity; today he’s remembered by niche jazz audiences, if at all.

Eckstine is to music what Jim Thorpe, once voted the greatest American athlete of the first half of the 20th century, is to sports. Today Thorpe would be lucky if he were in the top 100. Eckstine’s centennial anniversary was barely acknowledged (Sinatra’s is next year, but we don’t need to wait to know what a difference it will be).

Eckstine sang richly, played brass, dressed nattily and taught Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Art Blakey and Dizzy Gillespie in his band. He had his own nickname, Mr. B, which is how the famous disc jockey Symphony Sid referred to him. At his peak, some music historians say he was more popular than Sinatra, That should be worth more than a footnote in musical history.

But according to his biographer, Cary Ginnell, who wrote Mr. B: The Music and Life of Billy Eckstine, Eckstine was a victim of his success, and the bigotry of 1950 America. A magazine feature of that time included a picture showing Eckstine and his fans, who were the same demographic as those who adored Sinatra and later, Elvis and The Beatles: white teenage females.

“If you look at the photograph, it looks very innocuous and very innocent,” said Ginnell, according to npr.com, which had one of the very few remembrances of the 100th anniversary of Eckstine’s birth. “It’s actually what America should be like, with no racial tension, no racial separation — just honest love and happiness between the races. But America wasn’t ready for that in 1950. White America did not want Billy Eckstine dating their daughters.”

Sinatra got that permission, starred in movies, kept singing and died still an idol to many. Eckstine’s career ebbed and he became a guest on late-night talk shows. Sinatra played leading roles and was nominated for Oscars; Eckstine appeared in a cameo on Sanford and Son. Sinatra came back again and again. Eckstine faded, unable to hold the note of his popularity.

But his example hit a high note for many.

Said Quincy Jones to Billboard magazine in 1993: “I wanted to dress like him, talk like him, pattern my whole life as a musician and as a complete person in the image of dignity that he projected …”

“I consider Billy Eckstine the Jackie Robinson of popular music,” said Ginell to npr.com. “Before Billy Eckstine came along, blacks, they would either sing blues or they would be in jazz bands, or they would sing in vocal groups, like The Mills Brothers or The Ink Spots. Or as a novelty singer. But they were not permitted to enter the domain of Perry Como and Bing Crosby. And Eckstine was the first one to successfully do that.”

In 1999, an Eckstine song was honored by the Grammys, six years after he died. No word on how many got the irony of it being I Apologize.

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