Billy Eckstine and Vocal Groups

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Billy Eckstine was a sex symbol in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The vocalist's movie-star looks and seductive baritone earned him a prominent place in magazines and jukeboxes, leaving black and white girls with a terrible crush on him. All were smitten by the tenderness and understanding in Eckstine's butterscotch voice.

Today, Eckstine and the crucial role he played in paving the way for R&B balladeers of the 1950s and beyond has been largely forgotten. Those who do remember Eckstine tend to view him as a relic whose voice was dated even when he was popular. The evaporation of Eckstine's status is partly a result of bad timing beginning in the '40s. He led one of the earliest and most daring bebop bands between 1942 and 1944—smack in the middle of the first recording ban by the American Federation of Musicians. As a result, no recordings exist of the band.  

By 1947, Eckstine, with his operatic delivery, was a vocal sensation and a solo act. That year, he signed on with MGM just as pop vocalists were catching on with a country of young adults weary of big band music and nights out. MGM, at the time, caught the shift much in the way Capitol and Columbia did. As a result, Eckstine was paired with a wide range of sugary arrangers, including Hugo Winterhalter, Buddy Baker, Jack Miller, Russ Case, Lionel Newman and Lou Bring. He also wound up on MGM sessions in the early 1950s with young arrangers on their way up, including Pete Rugolo, Nelson Riddle and Bobby Tucker.

In 1955, with the launch of the 12-inch LP, Eckstine moved to Mercury, where he found more of the same—saccharine charts on songs that crawled along at a snail's pace. To milk Eckstine's market, the label forced the singer to stand still stylistically as Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Al Hibbler and a range of R&B balladeers such as Clyde McPhatter chewed into his turf. Today, Eckstine is rarely heard, and many view him as a singer whose treatments are heavy and thick, often framed by sub-par orchestrations.

But in re-listening to Eckstine's 1940s and '50s output for Deluxe, National, MGM and Mercury yesterday, several revelations emerged. For one, Eckstine was the first black pop vocalist and father of the romantic male soul vocal, blazing a trail for balladeers such as Brook Benton, Barry White, Luther Vandross, Teddy Pendergrass and many others.

For another, Eckstine had far greater control and power at the very bottom of his vocal ange than most people realize. Not only could he drop down and hit notes right on the nose, his voice could move around in that zone and put an interesting spin on melodies by employing dissonant notes.

And lastly, his lesser-known recordings with vocal groups during this period turned out to be the biggest surprise. When teamed with harmony groups like the Quintones, the Pied Pipers and the Lee Gordon Singers, Eckstine's baritone was offset by a pop lightness that made for a smart combination. Let me offer the following tracks as evidence...

Here's Fool That I Am with Hugo Winterhalter in 1947...

 

Here's Baby Won't You Say You Love Me with the Quintones and the Russ Case Orchestra in 1949...

 

Here's Lost in a Dream from the same session...



Here's I've Got My Mind on You from the same session...

 

Here's Coquette with the Lee Gordon Singers and Nelson Riddle in 1952...

 

Here's Send My Baby Back to me with the Lee Gordon Singers with Nelson Riddle in 1953 (shades of Riddle at Capitol)...

 

Here's I Laugh to Keep From Crying with the Textor Singers and Nelson Riddle in 1953. Be sure to dig Riddle's flute run-down at the end...

 

Here's It Can't Be Wrong with the Herman McCoy Singers and Nelson Riddle arranging in 1953. Yep, the theme from Now, Voyager (1942), which starred Bette Davis, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains..

 

Now that we've establsihed that Billy Eckstine played well with vocal groups, here are three clips that fully explain why he generated so much heat...

Here's Prisoner of Love in the mid-1940s...

 

Here's Rhythm in a Riff from the same film...

 

And here's September Song in the mid-1950s...

Continue Reading...

This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

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