Al Hibbler: Unchained Melodist

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After leaving Duke Ellington, Al Hibbler recorded with Count Basie, Gerald Wilson and several other jazz bandleaders. i

After leaving Duke Ellington, Al Hibbler recorded with Count Basie, Gerald Wilson and several other jazz bandleaders. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
After leaving Duke Ellington, Al Hibbler recorded with Count Basie, Gerald Wilson and several other jazz bandleaders.

After leaving Duke Ellington, Al Hibbler recorded with Count Basie, Gerald Wilson and several other jazz bandleaders.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

As a preeminent singer for Duke Ellington between 1943 and 1951, Al Hibbler earned his place in the jazz arena with a rich, supple baritone. Sightless since birth, he became the first blind performer, even preceding Ray Charles, to achieve real popularity. His southern accent and emotional treatment of songs combined in an idiosyncratic delivery that found success in jazz, R&B and pop markets alike.

Albert George Hibbler was born Aug. 16, 1915, in Tyro, Miss. He entered school for the first time at age 14, at the Arkansas School for the Blind. There, Hibbler sang in the choir as a soprano. Four years later, his voice had deepened to a lush baritone. Upon leaving school, Hibbler started singing the blues in roadhouses, though he wanted to sing soft sweet ballads like crooners Russ Columbo and Bing Crosby.

Hibbler's first big break was a singing gig with a local radio station, but he had designs on singing with big bands. He wasted his first big opportunity when he arrived drunk for an audition with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Though Hibbler didn't get that job, he eventually landed with the Jay McShann band — a fine Kansas City orchestra known for launching the careers of many top musicians, Charlie Parker included. "It was a gas to have Hibbler on the stand," McShann said. "He was outgoing and he loved people."

Hibbler stayed with McShann's band for 18 months until his second audition with Ellington. It was eight years after his first disastrous showing. This time, he arrived prepared. "Duke wouldn't let me go," Hibbler said. "He even wrote a song for me: 'Do Nothing 'Till You Hear From Me.'" That song became one of Ellington's most enduring ballads.

Hibbler was the lead singer for the Ellington orchestra for eight years, popularizing standards-to-be such as "Don't Get Around Much Any More," and "I'm Just a Lucky So and So." When a salary dispute ended the relationship, Hibbler struck out on his own and signed with Decca Records as a solo act. He achieved enormous success with his rendition of "Unchained Melody," which soared to the top of the charts in 1955.

The tumultuous '60s ushered in the Civil Rights Movement and rock 'n' roll, and the Beatles became the music of the time. Hibbler, like many other musicians, was a prominent activist, but his music career started to wane. By the '70s, his recording and performing dates were infrequent. Still, Hibbler always sought new sounds; in 1972, he recorded with highly original multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

Though the rate of his appearances slowed drastically in his later years, Al Hibbler still considered his career very much alive until shortly before his death in 2001, when he was 85.

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