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Billy Eckstine

Billy Eckstine

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Billy Eckstine's career was innovative in at least two respects: Originally a key figure in the bop movement, he spent most of his career blurring the lines between jazz and pop. And despite the racial attitudes of the '40s and '50s, he was one of the first black artists with mainstream leading-man appeal. Credit of both counts goes to Eckstine's resonant baritone voice, which was equally at home with the gritty blues of his early days and the Broadway material he did later on. Born in Pittsburgh and raised in Washington D.C., Eckstine planned to be a professional football player before breaking his collarbone. Instead he moved in the late '30s to Chicago, where he was hired by the great jazz pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines. He was the singer on some of Hines' band's most popular tracks including "Stormy Monday" and the suggestive blues "Jelly Jelly" (both famously covered decades later by the Allman Brothers Band). Eckstine's own big band, formed in 1944, became a training ground for jazz giants and a seminal band for bop; among those who passed through the lineup were Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan and Art Blakey. Eckstine also played trumpet (with coaching from Gillespie)...

Billy Eckstine's career was innovative in at least two respects: Originally a key figure in the bop movement, he spent most of his career blurring the lines between jazz and pop. And despite the racial attitudes of the '40s and '50s, he was one of the first black artists with mainstream leading-man appeal. Credit of both counts goes to Eckstine's resonant baritone voice, which was equally at home with the gritty blues of his early days and the Broadway material he did later on. Born in Pittsburgh and raised in Washington D.C., Eckstine planned to be a professional football player before breaking his collarbone. Instead he moved in the late '30s to Chicago, where he was hired by the great jazz pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines. He was the singer on some of Hines' band's most popular tracks including "Stormy Monday" and the suggestive blues "Jelly Jelly" (both famously covered decades later by the Allman Brothers Band). Eckstine's own big band, formed in 1944, became a training ground for jazz giants and a seminal band for bop; among those who passed through the lineup were Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan and Art Blakey. Eckstine also played trumpet (with coaching from Gillespie) and while the band could and definitely did swing, they also performed ballads, including the hit "Cottage for Sale," that showed his versatility. The band lasted until 1947 and Eckstine went on to increased success, sometimes working with orchestras. During 1950 he appeared at New York's Paramount Theatre (beating an attendance record set by Frank Sinatra) and became the first black entertainer on the cover of Life magazine-The photos showed his impeccable fashion sense (his high-rolled collar and tie would become a trademark) and one shot featured him surrounded by female admirers. The latter proved so controversial that his career suffered as a result. He would nonetheless continue making popular albums, and in 1957 teamed with Sarah Vaughan for the single "Passing Strangers" an enduring record that was only a minor hit at the time. In later years he became more active in the civil rights movement, and was a friend of Dr. Martin Luther King. During the soul era he signed with two of the best-known labels, making a few singles for Stax and three albums for Motown during the label's mid-'60s heyday. Young arranger Quincy Jones would also work on some of Eckstine's albums for Mercury. While those albums weren't hits they found him at home with contemporary soul material including a few Four Tops covers. He made his last album, with saxophonist Benny Carter in 1986 and only did occasional live performances afterward. Based again in Pittsburgh, he died at age 78 in 1993.

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CAST: (feature film)

3.
 Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling (1986) Johnny Barnett
4.
 Let's Do It Again (1975) Zack
5.
 Skirts Ahoy! (1952) Himself
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