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Billy Eckstine: A Crooner Who Crossed Barriers

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Billy Eckstine: A Crooner Who Crossed Barriers

Billy Eckstine: A Crooner Who Crossed Barriers

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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He was called the Sepia Sinatra - the Bronze Balladeer. As a crooner, Billy Eckstein sold millions of records in the years following the Second World War. As a bandleader, he helped usher in a new era of modern jazz. Billy Eckstein was born 100 years ago tomorrow. Tom Vitale has his story.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: Billy Eckstein was smooth as silk. He was tall and handsome. He sported a pencil-thin mustache. And he sang in a distinctive baritone.


BILLY ECKSTEIN: (Singing) If I told a lie - if I made you cry, when I said goodbye, I'm sorry.

CARY GINELL: I consider Billy Eckstein the Jackie Robinson of popular music.

VITALE: Cary Ginell is author of "Mr. B.: The Music And Life of Billy Eckstein."

GINELL: Before Billy Eckstein came along, blacks - they would either sing blues or they would be in jazz bands or they would sing in vocal groups, like the Mills Brothers or the Ink Spots. But they were not permitted to enter the domain of Perry Como and Bing Crosby. And Eckstein was the first one to successfully do that.

VITALE: Eckstein began singing as a child. He was born in Pittsburgh. His family moved to Washington, D.C., where he attended Howard University. But after winning an amateur talent contest, he left college to begin his professional career. By in the mid-1930s, he was singing for the popular Earl Fatha Hines orchestra.


ECKSTEIN: (Singing) Jelly, jelly, jelly - jelly stains on my mind.

VITALE: Along with his vocals, Eckstein played trumpet in Hines orchestra. And he was interested in the new sound some of his band mates were experiencing with in the late-night jam sessions. In 1943, he left Hines to form his own band.


ECKSTEIN: We were pioneering that sound. But they weren't big names. They were just guys starting out.

VITALE: They were Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and later, Art Blakey and Miles Davis. Eckstein fronted the first Bebop Orchestra. In 1984, between sets in his dressing room at the Blue Note in New York, he told me he was proud of the music his band made but not the name critics gave it.


ECKSTEIN: I resent Bebop. I resent that name. It's progressive jazz is what it was. Bebop sounds comedic to me. And it was anything but comedic. It was very steady music.


ECKSTEIN: (Scatting).

VITALE: But the band, with its innovations in rhythm and harmony, was ahead of its time.


ECKSTEIN: It wasn't commercial. It was too new. A lot of your so-called critics, who were supposed to be authorities on what we were doing, didn't know what we were doing. And so every time we'd play somewhere, we'd get bum rapped. You know, why butt your head on the wall.

VITALE: So Billy Eckstein moved to a solo career, singing popular ballads.


ECKSTEIN: (Singing) Fools rush in, where angels fear to tread. And so I come to you, my love - my heart above my head.

VITALE: Biographer Cary Ginell says Eckstein's popularity rivaled Frank Sinatra's.

GINELL: He was recording millions - selling records for MGM. He was mobbed by teenage girls wherever he went. He really was a matinee idol, so to speak, in the recording industry. And had his eyes on proceeding into film and television, as well.

VITALE: And then all at once, in April 1950, Eckstein's future as a crossover media star was cut short by a single photo in a Life magazine profile.

GINELL: The profile featured a photograph of Eckstein coming out of a nightclub in New York City and being mobbed by white teenage girls. It looks very innocuous and very innocent. It's actually what America should be like with no racial tension, no racial separation. But America wasn't ready for that in 1950. White America did not want Billy Eckstein dating their daughters.

VITALE: Eckstein continued to record and perform. But white disc jockeys would not play his records on segregated stations.


ECKSTEIN: Maybe black singers - black male singers are not supposed to sing about love. You're supposed to sing about hurt. Maybe that's what they got their hang-up in.

VITALE: But Eckstein insisted he was never bitter.


ECKSTEIN: To be bitter is waste of time, when you should be doing something constructive. You never get old doing something you like to do. And this is something I like to do. I mean, if you look out in the audience, you see smiling people, you bringing happiness to somebody. How many people have that privilege?

VITALE: Billy Eckstein continued to bring happiness to his fans, performing in clubs and casinos until his death in 1993. For NPR News, I'm Tom's Vitale in New York.


ECKSTEIN: It's gone and started raining. I'm lonesome as a man can be. It's gone and started raining.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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