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: