ECKSTINE, Billy: Yours To Command

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'Yours To Command' Original Recordings 1950-1952

Distinctive is the adjective that best describes one of themost imitated, yet essentially most inimitable of the jazz-singers who, duringthe mid-1940s transformed himself, chameleon-like, from aspiring bebopbandleader and promoter into the sartorially elegant 'Mr B'. The firstAfro-American pop idol of real substance, he set a trend for other black starsappearing before white audiences when to do so was more radical thancommonplace.  The charismatic, multi-talentedBilly (who apart from winning world fame with that unmistakeable baritonalvibrato was also at various stages in his career trumpeter, trombonist andguitarist) was born Clarence William Eckstein in Pittsburgh, Penn-sylvania, on8 July 1914.  He made his singingdebut aged eleven at a church bazaar, and also took piano lessons, but had noformal vocal training. Obsessed as a lad with football, he was the recipient ofan scholarship to St Paul's University, Lawrenceville, and until he broke hiscollarbone looked set for a career in athletics.

Imposing in speaking-voice and stage presence, from theearly 1930s onwards Billy worked variously as a vocalist and MC in clubs inWashington and other venues in the East and Midwest until 1936, when hereturned to Pittsburgh.  Thefollowing year he was singing in clubs in Buffalo and Detroit and worked hisway to Chicago where he became resident vocalist at the De Liso, in 1938. Therehe was first heard by pianist Earl Hines (1903-83) who made him principalvocalist with his bigband, in late 1939. Eckstine stayed with the Hines outfitfor four years, specialising in blues vocals (\Jelly, Jelly" became somethingof a theme number) and occasionally doubling on trumpet, which he had learnedto play in spare moments during the band's tours.  The Hines Orchestra became a renowned 'prep school' formodern jazz luminaries, including Dizzy Gillespie, and through Eckstine'sinfluence Hines hired several younger talents, notably Charlie Parker andvocalist Sarah Vaughan, whom he had heard at an amateur night at the New YorkApollo.

By 1943 having quit Hines, Eckstine almost immediatelyembarked on a solo career at New York's Onyx Club, but at the instigation ofhis agent Budd Johnson, in June 1944 he formed his short-lived but influential(and since highly acclaimed) big-band. A large-scale jazzband struggling like adinosaur for survival at the tail-end of the Swing Era, this enterprise wasnonetheless monumentally important in the development of bebop, for during thethree years of its activity its ranks nurtured the talents of Gillespie andParker, Gene Ammons, Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Fats Navarro andLucky Thompson, not to mention Sarah Vaughan and Lena Horne.

During 1945-46, apart from leading his band and penningvarious characteristic numbers in blues idiom of his own composition (notably'Blowing The Blues Away' and 'Lonesome Lover Blues') Billy clocked up the firstin a long series of US popular hits as a cult soloist, first for National, thenfor MGM. In 1945 he recorded his first hit, a million-selling revival of  'A Cottage For Sale' which reached No.8in the US pop charts and by January 1946 had repeated this success with anothergolden-disc in a revival of 'Prisoner Of Love', a number which had earlierproved a hit for its composer, Russ Columbo, in 1932.  In 1947 Eckstine fronted his own jazz septet but by 1948,bolstered by a lucrative five-year MGM contract, his activities as ajazz-derived pop soloist having already become his mainstay, he disbanded.

Between 1949 and 1953 'The Fabulous Mr B' held the status ofAmerica's most popular vocalist. In 1949 his hits included 'Somehow' and arevival of the 1930 standard 'Body And Soul'; in 1950 'Sitting By The Window',I Wanna Be Loved (US No.7) and another million-seller (consecutively his thirdwith 'My Foolish Heart' and, in 1951, a further Golden Disc with 'I Apologize'(a revival of a 1931-vintage Bing Crosby vehicle) a No.26 cover-version of 'BeMy Love' (the Oscar-nomination introduced by Mario Lanza in MGM's 1950film-musical Toast Of New Orleans) and at No.10 If (a resurrection of a 1934number by English songwriter Tolchard Evans). Covers of numbers fromcontemporary MGM films singled out for the distinctive Eckstine treatmentincluded I Left My Hat In Haiti (from MGM's Royal Wedding), Pandora (inspiredby Pandora And The Flying Dutchman) and Because You're Mine (Oscar-nominatedtitle of the 1952 musical starring Mario Lanza), while other 'tailored'material included Enchanted Land (an adaptation of 'The Song of the IndianGuest' from Rimsky-Korsakov's opera Sadko, otherwise better known as 'Song ofIndia') and Strange Sensation (a reworking of the tune of 'Lacumparsita'). 

Innate musicality and personal magnetism, allied to thathusky voice with its special vibrato, secured Ecktine's niche on theinternational club circuit. He first toured Europe in 1954 (that same year hescored a UK charts No.3 hit with 'No One But You') and returned to theContinent for many subsequent seasons. His 1959 recording of 'Gigi' reached No.8 and he was latterly to findextended popularity via the duets he recorded with Sarah Vaughan, particularly'Passing Strangers' which, recorded in 1957, charted at No.17 in 1969.  The eclecticism and more popularaspects of his repertoire led to his classification by some as acommercially-driven balladeer with jazz influences rather than a purejazz-singer, but nonetheless Billy was indisputably one of the first of thejazz-derived vocalists to achieve stardom in a world-class cabaret career whichextended, intermittently, until 1989 when a stroke robbed him of his mobility.

Billy Eckstine died in his native Pittsburgh on 8March,1993.

Peter Dempsey, 2003

Disc: 1
Until Eternity
1 When You Return
2 If
3 Bring Back The Thrill
4 Stardust
5 I Wanna Be Loved
6 Here Come The Blues
7 I Left My Hat In Haiti
8 I'm Yours To Command
9 What Will I Tell My Heart?
10 I'm A Fool To Want You
11 Love Me
12 Once
13 Be Fair
14 Pandora
15 Wonder Why
16 Enchanted Land
17 I've Got My Mind On You
18 Strange Sensation
19 Because You're Mine
20 Until Eternity
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