AMONG the qualities that made a star of singer Billy...


March 26, 1993

AMONG the qualities that made a star of singer Billy Eckstine, who died of a stroke earlier this month at age 78, were a velvet voice, a sophisticated musical ear and an unerring sense of style.

He was one of the first great crossover artists, effortlessly crossing the arbitrary racial boundaries that segregated pop music of the 1930s and '40s. That he was enormously talented, and good looking as well, made those barriers seem all the more irrelevant.

Mr. Eckstine came of age as a performer during a period of intense musical ferment. Jazz, once the despised step-child of American popular culture, had by the post-World War II years firmly established itself as the preeminent national music.

Mr. Eckstine began his career performing "sophisticated swing" as practiced by such consummate masters as Duke Ellington, Noble Sissle and Jimmie Lunceford. It was a style that emphasized the rich brass sonorities of big-band arrangements and dulcet-throated crooners.

Yet Mr. Eckstine was also among the first to champion the emergence of be-bop, which saw the birth of the "cool" era of small ensembles led by harmonically adventurous instrumental virtuosos.

In the late 1940s he formed his own big band, employing such stylistic innovators as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro, Dexter Gordon and Miles Davis.

Like other black performers of his era, Mr. Eckstine's talent was no guarantee against the indignities of discrimination, from segregated hotels and restaurants while on tour to the irony of being the featured performer in nightclubs where blacks were not permitted to enter as members of the audience. Yet he lived to see the civil rights movement spark a social revolution in America as profound as the musical revolution he had helped lead.

In later years, Mr. Eckstine's fame was eclipsed by a new generation of rock stars. Still, he continued to record for the Mercury Records label and remained in great demand on the nightclub circuit.

After a career that spanned nearly 60 years of American popular music, Billy Eckstine will be remembered as a man whose unstrained elegance of voice and demeanor made him a classic in his own time.

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