William Clarence Eckstine was an American jazz and pop singer and bandleader during the so called swing era.
The Swing Era is historically placed from 1933–1947 when big band swing music was the most popular music in the United States.
Billy Eckstine became known for his rich, almost operatic bass-baritone voice.
His recording of I Apologize from 1948 was awarded with the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999.
The media described Billy Eckstine as an influential band leader whose suave bass-baritone voice and full-throated, sugary approach to popular songs inspired singers like Earl Coleman, Johnny Hartman and Lou Rawls.
Eckstine was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Eckstine’s paternal grandparents were a mixed-race, married couple from Washington, D.C.
Eckstine attended Peabody High School before moving to Washington, DC.
Later he attended Howard University in Sashington D.C.
He left Howard in 1933 after winning first place in an amateur talent contest.
In Chicago, Eckstine joined Earl Hines’ Grand Terrace Orchestra in 1939 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 such as “Stormy Monday Blues”, and his own “Jelly Jelly.”
In 1944, Eckstine formed his own big band and it became an influential ‘institution’ for young musicians who would later shape the future of jazz.
Musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Charlie Parker, and Fats Navarro, vocalist Sarah Vaughan. Tadd Dameron, Gil Fuller and Jerry Valentine were among the bandmembers.
The Billy Eckstine Orchestra is considered to be the first bop big-band, and had numerous Top Ten chart entries during the period.
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.Dizzy Gillespie, To be or Not to Bop.
A succesful solo artist
Eckstine became a solo performer in 1947, with records featuring lush sophisticated orchestrations.
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.
Eckstine would go on to record over a dozen hits during the late 1940s.
He signed with the newly established MGM Records, and had immediate hits with revivals of “Everything I Have Is Yours” (1947), Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Moon” (1948), and Juan Tizol’s “Caravan” (1949).