Friday, June 25, 2010
Cut Down in His Prime
Billy Eckstine is one of my favorite singers. I fell in love with him listening to the release Everything I Have Is Yours: The Best of the MGM Years. His voice and delivery is distinct and different from anyone else. He draws out a phrase and injects it with such lush romanticism that you can easily understand why women in the late 1940s were crazy for him.
His compelling story is told in David Hajdu's essay "Billy Eckstine: The Man Who Was Too Hot", the opening entry in the wonderful collection of pop music history Heroes and Villians. Hajdu has a knack for finding highly influential but largely forgotten figures in jazz and pop: his most famous book was a biography of Billy Strayhorn, a collaborator on most of Duke Ellington's most widely known music.
I'm originally from Pittsburgh, and so was Eckstine and Strayhorn. This fact drew me to these subjects, and I'm greatly enriched by spending time listening and thinking about them.
Hajdu explains how Eckstine was famous both as a bandleader and as a singer. As the former, he is credited with introducing the sound that became bebop in the 1950s. As the latter, his incredible sense of style and his handsome appearance made him highly desirable to MGM, who signed him to a million-dollar deal in 1947. (It was the first studio to launch its own record company.)
The story about how the photograph from Life in 1950 effectively destroyed Eckstine's career is told movingly by Hajdu. I will not recount it here in hopes that you'll purchase the book. It is a story of how swiftly the hand of racism can snuff out promise--and, believe me, it is a complete and utter tragedy when you consider Billy Eckstine's talent.
I'll leave you with some audio and video clips of this great man. Give him a serious listen. You won't regret it!
Click hear to see Billy Eckstine leading his band and singing "Prisoner of Love".
Here's Billy with good friend Sarah Vaughan singing "Passing Strangers" from the late 1950s.
You'll get a chuckle out of this music video promoting "The Prime of My Life", a number Billy cut when he was recording for Motown.
Finally, give a listen to "Everything I Have Is Yours", one of my favorite numbers by Mr. B.