Today is Billy Eckstine’s 100th birthday anniversary. The renowned “Mr. B” was born in Pittsburgh on July 8, 1914, and died there in 1993 at the age of 78. Eckstine had all the qualities of a matinee idol, and were it not for Jim Crow, he might have been a star of movies and television. Alas, music was his primary vehicle, and he made the most of it, scoring huge successes on records in the forties and fifties. As a box office attraction, he outdrew Frank Sinatra at his peak. He was idolized in the black community and made women of every color swoon. He was a fashion plate for whom a shirt collar was named. Duke Ellington said that when Eckstine shared the bill with him at the Paramount, “There was a little thing going on between B and me. For four weeks neither of us wore the same suit twice. He flattered me by ordering his valet to call Los Angeles and have two more trunks shipped out immediately. By the third week, people were buying tickets just to see the sartorial changes.”
Eckstine came to prominence with Earl Hines in the early forties. Jazz legend holds that bebop was an insurgent movement against the conventions of big band swing, and that Hines became an unwitting incubator of the new music when he was persuaded by Eckstine to hire Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Mr. B’s personal discovery, Sarah Vaughan. When Eckstine left Hines in 1944 and formed his own orchestra, he brought Dizzy and Bird with him and subsequently hired a Who’s Who of emerging modern jazz greats including Dexter Gordon, Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, Kenny Dorham, Fats Navarro, Miles Davis, and Art Blakey.
Here’s a clip of Eckstine in 1946 singing “Lonesome Lover Blues.” The late Frank Wess is the tenor soloist here with Mr. B playing valve trombone.
A year earlier, the Eckstine book included “Opus X,” a showcase for trumpeter Fats Navarro. “Opus X” was composed by the band’s pianist, John Malachi, who later spent several years as Sarah Vaughan’s accompanist and nicknamed her “Sassy.”
Several years ago before a Sonny Fortune concert in Bushnell Park in Hartford, a friend and I were approached by a man in shirt and tie and fedora who looked like he’d spent part of his life behind bars. He asked us why a crowd was gathering, and when I told him a jazz concert was about to begin, he said, “I remember jazz. Can you guess who this is?” At that, he sang the whole of “Everything I Have Is Yours” like a man auditioning for a job as Mr. B’s understudy.
Here’s the Eckstine original from 1947.