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Billy Daniels; Singer’s Tempestuous Career Spanned Clubs to Broadway

Times Staff Writer

Billy Daniels, who took a song called “That Old Black Magic” and made it his own through a tempestuous singing career, died of stomach cancer Friday morning at the Kenneth Norris Cancer Hospital in Los Angeles. He was 73.

The singer recently completed a 4-week comeback engagement in Atlantic City after recovery from quadruple bypass surgery last year in La Costa. Upon his return to his home in the Hollywood Hills, a spokesman said, Daniels complained of a nagging pain.

He entered Scripps Clinic in La Jolla, where the cancer was discovered. The condition was diagnosed as inoperable.

Daniels was a former band singer who became a successful nightclub performer as a single even before Frank Sinatra, Dick Haymes and Perry Como.

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Rough Spots

The fascinating rough spots in his voice gave him wide appeal, but in the post-World War II era, he was virtually always referred to as a “Negro singer” and his career was marked by several episodes that landed him on the scandal pages.

He was born Sept. 12, 1915, in Jacksonville, Fla., as William Boone Daniels. He was part black, but his family traced itself back to frontiersman Daniel Boone.

When he graduated from a Catholic academy, he went to New York to study law. But it was 1933. The Depression was still on, and he took a job as a singing waiter.

Bandleader Erskine Hawkins saw him and hired him as featured vocalist. He was only 19.

After leaving to sing on his own, Daniels appeared frequently in Harlem and in the famed 52nd Street swing clubs in New York. In 1940, he was signed to appear in a Broadway musical, “Memphis Bound,” with dancer Bill (Bojangles) Robinson. Then came the war, and he entered the Merchant Marine.

After the war, he returned to the nightclubs, gaining fame throughout the country with his dancing, finger-popping style and numbers that had “soul” before most people had heard the term. He had his own show for 13 weeks in the early days of television and then appeared at the London Palladium. He became a popular entertainer in Las Vegas.

Command Performances

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He did many shows around the world, including eight command performances before the royal family in Great Britain.

It was the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer song, “That Old Black Magic” that became the Daniels trademark. Although Glenn Miller and many other bands had recorded the number, Daniels’ 1948 recording sold 15 million copies.

Among his other best-selling records were “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “When You’re Smiling” and “Cruising Down the River.” For many years in the 1950s and ‘60s, he regularly appeared on TV variety shows.

In the 1960s, he spent a year and a half on Broadway with Sammy Davis Jr. in “Golden Boy.” He also was on stage with Pearl Bailey with “Hello Dolly” in 1975.

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One of the less-pleasant moments in the singer’s life came on Dec. 2, 1950, when he was stabbed in the face and throat by actress-dancer Ronny Quillan at her Hollywood apartment.

Then in February, 1956, he was booked for felonious assault and illegal possession of a gun in the shooting of a 33-year-old prize fight trainer during a dispute in a Harlem after-hours club. The charges were eventually dismissed.

Knifed in Back

In 1964, he was knifed in the back by a 48-year-old man while on stage singing at the Latin Quarter. The story disappeared from view without any real explanation.

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In 1950, after an earlier marriage, Daniels married bit-part actress Martha Braun, a Lowell, Mass., socialite who divorced him four years later.

In November, 1955, he eloped to Juarez, Mex., with Perette Camera, who had been the governess of his three children by his first marriage. She was at his bedside on Friday when he died.

In addition to his wife, Daniels leaves six children: Andrea, Dominique, Yvonne, Adrienne, Billy II and Bruce.

Funeral services will be on Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. in the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills. Comedian Red Buttons will give the eulogy. Honorary pallbearers will include Milton Berle, Tony Martin, Jack Jones, Tom Jones and Tony Bennett.

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Viewing will be at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, Hollywood Hills over the weekend. Private interment will be on Wednesday in La Costa.

The family has suggested that contributions be made to the Kenneth Norris Cancer Hospital or to the USC Cancer Center.


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