Before Sam Cooke, before Clyde McPhatter, before Ray Charles and before Earl Coleman there was Al Hibbler. Blind from birth, Hibbler began his recording career in 1942 with Jay McShann's band, when Charlie Parker was in the reed section. Then in 1943, he joined Duke Ellington, a tenure that lasted until 1950. A dispute with Ellington over compensation led to Hibbler's departure and the start of a successful solo recording career that lasted until the end of the decade. Today, Hibbler remains one of the greatsnot just for what he did with his voice but also for what he didn't do. [Pictured at top: Al Hibbler in 1951]
Over the years, music writers have struggled to characterize Hibbler's unusual vocal style. Many scribes have quibbledover whether Hibbler was a jazz singer or a pop crooneror a bridge between pop and R&B. I'd argue that all of these labels miss the mark. In truth, Hibbler is the first pure soul singerif we define soul as the relaxed, heart-felt adaptation of songs flavored by intimacy and seduction. Contemporaries Billy Eckstine tended to deliver songs comparatively straight. Herb Jeffries, too.
What made Hibbler special, in both the 78-rpm era and the LPera that followed, was how he served up song lyrics. Unencumbered by what he saw when performing or recording, Hibbler was able to kick back and relate songs in a natural style that varied from tongue-in-cheek conversational to polished bel canto.
Rather than use his baritonevoice to sing songs ernestly or romantically, Hibbler often added humor and a fey touch that were enormously engaging. His interpretive style assumed listeners already knew the lyrics to these songs, allowing him to feel comfortable dropping in a syncopated stutter between lyrics or using feigned sweetness when delivering words.
For example, Hibbler could come off of a full-tilt belt topronounce the word you" as yew" or so" as sew"as if to reconnect with average listeners following an exhibition of his powerful technique. Such personalized insertions became a trademark for Hibbler, and listeners eagerly awaited them.
In this regard songs were like a yo-yo in his hands. You knewthere was going to be enormous dexterity when Hibbler took on a song. But you also assumed there would be a vocal walking the dog" or two. In addition to his basso delivery, Hibbler's voice flickered with a full vibrato, and he enjoyed adding an uh-uh" between lyricseither to give a song a street informality or to fill the space creatively.
In the late 1950s and into the '60s, Hibbler became active inthe civil rights movement and was arrested twice at protests. His last recording was in 1984 (New Jersey Jazz Festival). Hibbler died in 2001 at age 85.
In many respects, you can't fully understand Ray Charles or any other soul vocalist who followed without first listening at length to Al Hibbler and how he phrased songs and made them soulfully his own.
JazzWax tracks: All of Al Hibbler's discography is choice. But here are a handful of starter suggestions:
Jazz and the blues--because together this musical brother and sister speak from our nation's days of the current cultural affairs and the authenticity and truth of a place where the rhythms held the pulse and the drums the heartbeat, representing every step closer the meat on the bone
Jazz and the blues--because together this musical brother and sister speak from our nation's days of the current cultural affairs and the authenticity and truth of a place where the rhythms held the pulse and the drums the heartbeat, representing every step closer the meat on the bone. Feet in the dirt, or barefoot on a stage with sequins--it's soul beats in my chest.
I was first exposed to jazz while others listened to surf music in the '50s and '60s, it was Monk, Miles, Satchmo and Ella, Rosemary Clooney and Julie London followed. Margaret Whiting, Les McCann, Willie Bobo, Andy Simpkins, Snooky Young, Bill Basie and Helen Humes. The first time I heard Topsy, Take 2, I about passed out at the age of ten.
I've hung with Les McCann who more than 30 years after our first meeting became my duet partner on my CD, Don't Go To Strangers. Karen Hernandez from the start, Jack Le Compte on drums, Lou Shoch on bass, Steve Rawlins as my arranger and pianist, Grant Geissman - guitar genius, Nolan Shaheed, Richard Simon, and more. The big boys. My Red Hot Papas. The best show I ever attended was...
I met Helen Humes first back in 1981 and helped turn one Playboy Jazz Festival night into her tribute, bring the Basie Band to stage, her joy boys. Before she took the stage for the last time to sing, If I could Be With You One Hour Tonight thousands of copies of the newspaper I wrote for carried her story. It was kismet, her being held by Joe Williams backstage. Soon in my life were the great Linda Hopkins who told me I sang the song she wrote better than her, which floored me of course, the energizing Barbara Morrison and the stellar Marilyn Maye who guided me professionally.
My advice to new listeners... let your backbone slip and feel your body stripping back the barriers that prevent us from being one with the music.
Remember none of us are strangers, we just haven't met yet.