Billy Eckstine: Silk in his voice matched polish of his style RETROSPECTIVE

March 09, 1993|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

They didn't come any smoother than Billy Eckstine.

That he was a great singer goes without saying -- few baritones have ever equaled the sort of warm tone and mellifluous phrasing that was his stock-in-trade. But there was more to it than that, for Eckstine, who died in his hometown of Pittsburgh Monday at age 78, was a smoothie in every sense of the term.

Elegant and urbane, with a sense of style that went well beyond the cut of his clothes, he seemed born to the role of matinee idol. His image bespoke a suave sensuality, combining crooning intimacy with rakish good looks; imagine a cross between Frank Sinatra and Billy Dee Williams, and you'll have a sense of just how powerful a presence he was.

No wonder, then, that it was he who became America's first cross-over pop star. An African-American, Eckstine came up in the segregated star system of the 1940s, one which drew a line between "pop" hits and "race records." Yet his most successful work -- singles like "A Cottage for Sale" in 1945, "My Foolish Heart" in 1950, and "I Apologize" in 1951 -- obliterated that boundary, placing him alongside the likes of Bing Crosby and Sinatra, and paving the way for everyone from Nat "King" Cole to Michael Jackson.

How'd he do it? Mainly by concentrating on tone. Eckstine's voice was amazingly rich, and his singing style emphasized its silken luster to such a degree that in his hands, even a blues number as earthy as "Jelly Jelly" (which he recorded in 1949 with Earl Hines and His Orchestra) became something more subtle, a statement of romantic yearning rather than base lust.

That difference in his approach not only set him apart from the pack, but it also set the stage for such singers as Joe Williams and Sarah Vaughan (the latter an Eckstine discovery), as well as influencing the likes of Tony Bennett and even Elvis Presley -- stars whose success went well beyond his own.

Yet for all his commercial acumen, there was always something refreshingly hip about Mr. B (as Eckstine was known to his fans). A graduate of Howard University, Eckstine was a man of sophisticated tastes and an early champion of be-bop. Indeed, he even tried to establish himself as an instrumental soloist in the idiom, first on trumpet and then, after hearing Dizzy Gillespie, on valve trombone.

But it was the big band he put together in 1944 that secured his place in the jazz pantheon. It wasn't just that he was totally committed to the music, and willing to use his own star power to win converts; he also had exquisite taste in sidemen.

With Dizzy Gillespie as its musical director, the band included, at one time or another, such greats as Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro, Dexter Gordon, Gene Ammons, Miles Davis, Wardell Grey, Leo Thompson, Oscar Pettiford and Tad Dameron, making it a veritable who's who of the early bop movement.

Although the ensemble eventually fell victim to the declining demand for big bands, it went a long way toward popularizing the then-developing style, touring widely and even setting a few box-office records.

But Eckstine took the end of his band in stride. "It didn't last forever, but we had a hell of a band," he said later.

Billy Eckstine didn't last forever, either. But he was a hell of a singer, and one likely to be long remembered.

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