William Clarence 'Billy' Eckstine (July 8, 1914 – March 8, 1993) was an American singer and a bandleader of theswing era. Eckstine's recording of "I Apologize" (MGM, 1948) was awarded the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999.
Eckstine's paternal grandparents were William F. Eckstein and Nannie Eckstein, a mixed-race, married couple who lived in Washington, D.C.; both were born in 1863. William F. was born in Prussia and Nannie in Virginia. His parents were William Eckstein, a chauffeur, and Charlotte Eckstein. Eckstine was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; a State Historical Marker is placed at 5913 Bryant St, Highland Park, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to mark the house where he grew up. He attended Armstrong High School, St. Paul Normal and Industrial School, and Howard University. He left Howard in 1933, after winning first place in an amateur talent contest. He married his first wife, June, in 1942. After their divorce he married actress and model Carolle Drake in 1953, and they remained married until his death. He was the father of five children and two step-children, including Ed Eckstine, who was a president of Mercury Records, Guy Eckstine, who was a Columbia and Verve Records A&R executive and record producer, and singer Gina Eckstine.
In the 1940s, Eckstine had pop hits "Prisoner of Love" and "My Foolish Heart" as well as "I Apologize". Heading to Chicago, Eckstine joined Earl Hines' Grand Terrace Orchestra in 1939, staying with the band as vocalist and trumpeter, until 1943. By that time, Eckstine had begun to make a name for himself through the Hines band's juke-box hits as "Stormy Monday Blues" and his own "Jelly Jelly."
In 1944, Eckstine formed his own big band and it became the finishing school for adventurous young musicians who would shape the future of jazz. Included in this group were Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, Art Blakey,Charlie Parker, and Fats Navarro, as well as vocalist Sarah Vaughan. Tadd Dameron, Gil Fuller and Jerry Valentine were among the band's arrangers. The Billy Eckstine Orchestra is considered to be the first bop big-band, and had Top Ten chart entries that included "A Cottage for Sale" and "Prisoner of Love".
Dizzy Gillespie, in reflecting on the band in his 1979 autobiography To Be or Not to Bop, gives this perspective: "There was no band that sounded like Billy Eckstine's. Our attack was strong, and we were playing bebop, the modern style. No other band like this one existed in the world."
Eckstine became a solo performer in 1947, with records featuring lush sophisticated orchestrations. Eckstine recorded over a dozen hits during the late 1940s, including "My Foolish Heart" and "I Apologize." He signed with the newly established MGM Records, and had immediate hits with revivals of "Everything I Have Is Yours" (1947), Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s "Blue Moon" (1948), and Juan Tizol’s "Caravan" (1949).
Eckstine had further success in 1950 with Victor Young’s theme song to "My Foolish Heart" and a revival of the 1931 Bing Crosby hit, "I Apologize".
His 1950 appearance at the Paramount Theatre in New York City drew a larger audience than Frank Sinatra at his Paramount performance.
Among Eckstine's recordings of the 1950s was a 1957 duet with Sarah Vaughan, "Passing Strangers", a minor hit in 1957, but an initial No. 22 success in the UK Singles Chart. Even before folding his band, Eckstine had recorded solo to support it, scoring two million-sellers in 1945 with "Cottage for Sale" and a revival of "Prisoner of Love". Far more successful than his band recordings, these prefigured Eckstine’s future career.
The 1960 Las Vegas live album, No Cover, No Minimum, featured Eckstine taking a few trumpet solos and showcased his nightclub act. He recorded albums for Mercury and Roulette in the early 1960s, and appeared on Motown albums during the mid to late 1960s. After recording sparingly during the 1970s for Al Bell'sStax/Enterprise imprint, the international touring Eckstine made his last recording, the Grammy-nominated Billy Eckstine Sings with Benny Carter in 1986.
Eckstine made numerous appearances on television variety shows, including on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Nat King Cole Show, The Tonight Show with Steve Allen,Jack Paar, and Johnny Carson, The Merv Griffin Show, The Art Linkletter Show, The Joey Bishop Show, The Dean Martin Show, The Flip Wilson Show, and Playboy After Dark. He also performed as an actor in the TV sitcom Sanford and Son, and in such films as Skirts Ahoy, Let's Do It Again, and Jo Jo Dancer.
Culturally Eckstine was a fashion icon. He was famous for his "Mr. B. Collar"- a high roll collar that formed a "B" over a Windsor-knotted tie. The collars were worn by many a hipster in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
In 1984 Eckstine recorded his final album, I Am a Singer, arranged and conducted by Angelo DiPippo and featuring Toots Thielemans on harmonica. He died on March 8, 1993, aged 78. In 2013, Hal Leonard Books published "Mr. B. - The Music and LIfe of Billy Eckstine" by Cary Ginell, the first full-length treatment of Eckstine's career. The book was called "admirable" by Jazz Lives' Michael Steinman.
His friend Duke Ellington recalled Eckstine's artistry in his 1973 autobiography Music is My Mistress: "Eckstine-style love songs opened new lines of communication for the man in the man-woman merry-go-round, and blues a la B were the essence of cool. When he made a recording of Caravan, I was happy and honored to watch one of our tunes help take him into the stratosphere of universal acclaim. And, of course, he hasn't looked back since. A remarkable artist, the sonorous B." ... "His style and technique have seen extensively copied by some of the neocommercial singers, but despite their efforts he remains out front to show how and what should have been done."
Quincy Jones stated in Billboard: "I looked up to Mr. B as an idol. I wanted to dress like him, talk like him, pattern my whole life as a musician and as a complete person in the image of dignity that he projected.... As a black man, Eckstine was not immune to the prejudice that characterized the 1950s." Jones is quoted in The Pleasures of Jazz as also saying of Eckstine: "If he’d been white, the sky would have been the limit. As it was, he didn’t have his own radio or TV show, much less a movie career. He had to fight the system, so things never quite fell into place."
Lionel Hampton: "He was one of the greatest singers of all time.... We were proud of him because he was the first Black popular singer singing popular songs in our race. We, the whole music profession, were so happy to see him achieve what he was doing. He was one of the greatest singers of that era ... He was our singer."