Billy Eckstine’s place in musical history is clearly important, yet somewhat ambiguous. Many who hear him today know him as a mature ballad singer whose good looks and imposing baritone have been a part of the traditional pop world since pre-rock days.
Eckstine, who opens Tuesday at the Vine St. Bar & Grill, is a survivor. A contemporary of Sinatra, Joe Williams and Ella Fitzgerald, he was the first male black singer to develop an international appeal through his interpretation of love songs.
There is, however, another side to the story. To countless veteran jazz students, his credentials--still reflected in the burnished sensitivity he brings to his vocals--were established during the ‘40s be-bop era, when he led one of the most dazzling all-star ensembles in the annals of big-band jazz.
“It didn’t last forever,” Eckstine says, recalling those days, “but we all knew we had a hell of a band.”
Indeed it was.
After four years as vocalist with the orchestra of Earl Hines, Eckstine put together a band of his own that virtually encapsulated the entire be-bop era. At one time or another, between its formation in 1944 and its dissolution in 1947, the band included trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Fats Navarro; saxophonists Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Budd Johnson, Gene Ammons and Dexter Gordon, and drummer Art Blakey.
By this time Eckstine, who had occasionally played trumpet with Hines, had become a fluent soloist on valve trombone. Still recognized as a major vocalist, Eckstine took pleasure in being just one of the cats. But that became a problem.
During the instrumental numbers, Eckstine’s band was an immensely exciting modern jazz group. But many of his fans wanted to hear the leader sing “I’m in the Mood for Love,” “Prisoner of Love” and other less adventurous songs associated with his romantic image.
The two identities were incompatible; moreover, Eckstine had trouble convincing his managers that his role as a bandleader was justified.
“One time the William Morris office sent someone to review us,” recalls Eckstine, who now lives in Las Vegas. “He went back to New York with a report stating that the band had ‘no love vein,’ whatever that meant, and he suggested that I get a girl singer ‘more complementary to my looks.’ Well, as you know, our girl singer was Sarah Vaughan. Can you believe that?”
After the band broke up, Eckstine had some good years. “Mr. B,” as he became known, played in Las Vegas and other prestigious spots. He recorded with lush string ensembles and with the Quincy Jones Orchestra. Today he still works regularly around the world, though rarely records.
The one constant in his career is Bobby Tucker, a gifted pianist who has been his musical director for a record-breaking 42 years.
Eckstine, who is twice divorced, has seven children, three of whom are in the music business: Ed, who is president of Mercury Records; Guy, who heads the label’s jazz and classical music departments, and Gina, a singer in Las Vegas.
Asked whether he keeps track of the contemporary vocal scene, Eckstine offers an endorsement for Harry Connick Jr., whose credentials are sometimes questioned by jazz purists. “He’s doing very musical stuff, he has a fine band, and he’s associated himself with classy material,” he says. “Sure, he’s into the Sinatra thing, but that ain’t bad, is it?”
In his recent rise to stardom, Connick has had a few advantages over the young Eckstine. He was a solo singer on a major label before starting his band and has been able to break into mainstream films--something that was off limits to black ballad singers in Eckstine’s early years.
Nevertheless, Eckstine can look back with satisfaction on the critical acceptance earned in his big-band days, which led to awards from Esquire and Down Beat magazines. He doesn’t regret the time and financial problems his orchestral venture cost him.
The fame that has accrued to him over a 50-year career continues to generate honors in which he takes particular pride. “In Pittsburgh, my home town, they’re doing a big reclamation job in an area occupied by the Granada Theatre,” he says, with pride. “They’re tearing it down and putting up a big new building which will be known as the Billy Eckstine Building of the Performing Arts. Man, that really knocks me out!”