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My One on One Encounter with the Great Mr. B

Updated: Mar 10

“For a black man to come out and sing a love song...they just did not want to see it. But you have to stick by your guns. I've always looked at things this way: First off, I'm a man."

It was 31 years ago today that William Clarence “Billy” Eckstine, the great singer, influential big bandleader and fashion icon, got his hat, as Lester Young would say. A Pittsburgh native, Mr. B died in his hometown at age 78 on March 8, 1993. He will forever be remembered for his rich baritone voice, handsome good looks and suave demeanor — qualities that inspired deep-voiced singers who came after him such as Johnny Hartman, Joe Williams, Arthur Prysock and Lou Rawls. A member of Earl Hines’ Grand Terrace Orchestra of 1939, Eckstine began to make a name for himself through the Hines band’s juke-box hits “Stormy Monday Blues” and “Jelly, Jelly,” the latter which he penned himself.

In 1944, Eckstine formed his own big band, which became the finishing school for a slew of adventurous young musicians who would shape the future of jazz, including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro and Miles Davis. In reflecting on The Billy Eckstine Orchestra, which was considered to be the first bebop big band, Dizzy Gillespie wrote in his 1979 autobiography To Be or Not to Bop: “Our attack was strong and we were playing bebop, the modern style. No other band like this one existed in the world.” The Billy Eckstine Orchestra scored million-selling hits in 1946 with romantic fare like “Cottage for Sale” and “Prisoner of Love,” the latter song written in 1931 by crooner Russ Columbo and later covered by everyone from Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and Woody Herman to Mildred Bailey, Lena Horne and Veronica Swift…and perhaps most famously, James Brown.

Eckstine followed with a succession of hits — “Everything I Have Is Yours” in 1947, “Blue Moon” in 1948, “Caravan” in 1949 and a revival of Crosby’s 1931 hit “I Apologize” in 1950. By the early ‘60s he had a successful Las Vegas nightclub act and continued recording through the decade for Mercury, Roulette and Motown. He later recorded for the Stax label through the ‘70s and in 1984 released I Am a Singer, featuring Toots Thielemans on harmonica, for the Kimbo label. His final album was 1987’s Grammy-nominated Billy Eckstine Sings with Benny Carter, which also featured singer Helen Merrill.

My own path crossed with Mr. B.’s in 1977 when I was working as a freelancer in the feature department of The Milwaukee Journal. I had attended his Saturday evening show at The Pfister, a ritzy hotel in downtown Brew City, and was lucky enough to secure an interview with him the following day in his hotel room. The story appeared on the front page of the Monday, November 7, 1977 edition of The Milwaukee Journal and carried the headline, “Audiences Deserve Dignity on Stage.” Here’s that One on One interview with Billy Eckstine from 47 years ago:

Billy Eckstine’s mellow baritone voice has warmed hearts for four decades. At 63, the singer of jazz classics and romantic ballads is still going strong and is a top draw in nightclubs. He closed Saturday at the Pfister Hotel. Since he broke into the business with the Earl Hines band in the late 1930s, he has seen trends come and go. But Eckstine has always remained true to his art

You’ve been singing for more years than I’ve been alive. I think people are curious to know how you maintain your youthful appearance.

Let me tell you what I told Sammy Davis Jr. He said, “B., you get younger every year,” and I said, “Well, you don’t get too old just lifting a microphone.” There’s not too much strain in that.

What was the trend in jazz when you broke into the business?

When I first went with the Earl Hines band in the late 1930s, it was just regular swing type things on the Basie side…remnants left of Jimmy Lunceford. I left Earl in 1943 and started my band in 1944. That was about the start of progressive jazz. Of course, it didn’t prove lucrative because it was a little too strange for people’s ears then. It was danceable, but it was too new. I guess we were about the first band to start with the concert style of jazz using a lot of soloing.

Who was in your band?

Better you should say, “Who wasn’t in the band?” The reed section was Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Dexter Gordon, Gene Ammons and Leo Parker. Trumpet section was Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, Howard McGhee. We also had Benny Green on trombone, Art Blakey on drums, and Sarach Vaughan was the girl singer. But it was too early. I kept the band from 1944 through 1947, but if I would have kept it another two years it would have been all right.

How do you view some of the trends that have come up more recently in music? Punk rock, for instance, seems to be very trendy now.

That kind of stuff…I don’t know. That’s gimmickry. I don’t even listen to it. These guys with the glitter and stuff all on their faces? Who wants to watch that crap? It’s a substitute for talent…gone next year. You take people like this guy Alice Cooper. Even he doesn’t wear all that junk now. What’s the other freak? David Bowie. When you build a career on gimmickry, you’re no bigger than your last gimmick And after people see you a couple of times, the gimmick’s over. I mean, guys stabbing chickens all over the stage…what the hell is this? Is that music? It’s a lot of things that have nothing at all to do with music. And the music itself is the thing that people least remember. They talk about guitars blowing up, things flying through the air, some guy stabbing a chicken on stage.

But there are still some pure artists coming up today.

Oh yeah! Steve Wonder, to me, is a genius. He’s gonna be the one to emerge out of it as the No. 1. Another one I like is Barry Manilow. But Stevie is still experimenting. Wait until he gets about 35. If you look over the Ellington periods of his great success in composing, it was at that age. He was always experimenting earlier. You have to, because you don’t know what you’re doing when you’re young. Once you get that collective idea in your brain…wait ’til Stevie hits that point, then forget it! Now he writes novelties, good ballads, good rock things, good rhythm things. He’s diversified in his thinking. But watch where he goes with it…whew!

You had a pretty close relationship with Duke. How did you meet him?

I knew Duke ever since I worked in a little club in Pittsburgh. At one point he wanted me to join his band, and I was in ecstasy at the thought of it. But it didn’t work out somehow. Then I went with Earl Hines’ band, but afterward Duke and I worked together a bit. In fact, we worked right here in Milwaukee at the Riverside Theater. He was just a person I loved, and my biggest musical inspiration. Because he gave dignity to music, which was something I was always a firm believer in — dignity in your performance and your music. That’s another reason why I can’t go for some of this contemporary stuff, because the deportment of it is so bad. I was always taught that when you come to an audience that’s paying 5 or 10 bucks cover charge, you owe that audience something. I think it’s an insult to my audience if I walk out on stage with some sandals on and dirty feet, baggy jeans and a funky nasty t-shirt. Why should I pay 10 bucks to see some funky creep that needs a bath? I don’t think that’s right for show business. Do whatever you want on your performance, but don’t come up looking like a pig with nasty, funky feet that you can see where he hasn’t taken a bath. In relationship to what I’m talking about, look at the Beatles. They were mod all the way with their long hair, but they were clean. They made a nice appearance in their suits. You didn’t mind taking your little daughters to see something like this instead of some creep up on the stage who turns around to the audience with his behind sticking out of some ripped up funky jeans. You take some of these Grand Funk Railroads and some of these other damn things…it’s a disgrace! Look at Elvis, God rest him [Presley died on Aug. 16, 1977, two and a half months before this interview]. He came out in high style, but he was clean.

Did you have any associations with the late Bing Crosby [who passed away three weeks earlier at the time of this interview, on October 14, 1977]?

I didn’t know Bing personally. I think I saw Bing twice in my whole career. He had a big financial interest in the Pittsburgh Pirates and I was called to sing the National Anthem at the

opening of Three Rivers Stadium, their new ballpark in Pittsburgh. I met Bing there and I later met him at a golf tournament. I had no camaraderie with him, but I admired him very much. At the time I started out, everybody sang very high, like your Morton Downey’s and people like that. But Bing was a baritone. And by me having a heavy voice all the time, he was sort of an inspiration for me to sing in that baritone style. Bing, Russ Columbo, Harlan Lattimore, Pha (pronounced ‘Fay’) Tarrell…they were all baritones.

Quincy Jones once said that if you had been white the sky would have been the limit. You could have gotten the radio shows, TV shows and movie offers that Crosby got.

It’s true.

What was it like coming up as a black entertainer in the ‘30s and ‘40s?

People were not nearly as civilized as they are today as far as racial relationships. So a black singer either had to be in a group or he had to be some sort of gimmick…come out in rags singing “Ol’ Man River” or something like that. But to have any form of dignity, you couldn’t be black. They accepted things from Duke Ellington because he was a master at what he did. Cab Calloway, even with his dignity, was still going around with the white tails and shaking his hair yelling, “Hi-dee-hi-dee-ho.” But for a black man to come out and sing a love song…they just did not want to see it. But you have to stick by your guns. I’ve always looked at things this way: First off, I’m a man. And my dad told me this once when I was going off on my own. He said, “Be whatever you’re supposed to be, but always be a man.” And that has been a good criteria for me. Couple of times I was offered scenes in pictures where I was supposed to play a redcap (train porter) or some damn thing and then go into the baggage room with bags under my arms and sing. I wouldn’t take it. Because if I’m gonna be a singer, why do I have to be a redcap? Things have changed, of course, but we have a lot of room yet to make up. But it’s still a giant step now from where it was.

Are you doing any work in the studio these days?

I’m mainly working on my masters in music at USC and I have to do some on-campus work with it. After that, I want to keep on going and get my doctorate…just to have. So in case I ever want to teach somebody, I’ll know the technical aspects of it. But I was mainly self-taught, and the things I learned were right. But it’s good to know the technical side of it too.

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