Tall, handsome and blessed with a velvety baritone voice that seduced jazz lovers everywhere, Billy Eckstine left his mark on music as a band leader, mentor, entertainer and singer.
A Pittsburgh native born on July 8, 1914, he grew up on Bryant Street in Highland Park, attended Peabody High School and went to Howard University. His mother, Charlotte, was a seamstress and his father, William, was a chauffeur. The family owned a piano and young Billy gravitated to music, eventually learning to play trumpet, trombone and guitar. He also loved playing football but suffered a broken collarbone while in high school.
Eckstine was 11 when he first sang at a church bazaar. Later, he won an amateur competition by singing “Stardust” at the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C. For a time, he worked as a singing waiter at the Fort Pitt Hotel in Downtown Pittsburgh.
In 1939, he sought his musical fortune in Chicago. The next year, he joined Earl “Fatha” Hines’s band, sharing vocals with Sarah Vaughan and working with alto sax player Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie. The two young vocalists began perfecting their singing styles. During that time, Eckstine made a successful recording of the jazz standard “Skylark.” His first big hit was “Jelly, Jelly,” which he sang while touring with the band. A few years later, he had other hits with “Prisoner of Love” and “Cottage for Sale.”
His success allowed him to form his own band in 1944 and mentor emerging talent. The Billy Eckstine Orchestra featured jazz trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Kenny Dorham, saxophone players Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon and Sonny Stitt and drummer Art Blakey, another Pittsburgh native. It was the first major big band to be influenced by the emerging musical style called bebop.
The band broke up in 1947. Eckstine signed with MGM records and began singing ballads. Hits included “Blue Moon,” “Caravan,” “I Apologize,” “My Foolish Heart” and “Everything I Have is Yours.” By 1949, he was the top male vocalist in “Metronome” magazine and the most popular singer in “Down Beat” magazine.
Like Dinah Shore and Frank Sinatra, Eckstine arrived in the big time by appearing at New York’s famous Paramount Theatre. In 1950, Eckstine grossed half a million dollars from record sales, stage appearances and nightclub stints. He drew record-breaking crowds in New York and Los Angeles. By that time, he had closets full of suits, owned three cars and took regular lessons from a golf pro.
Always stylishly dressed, he wore narrow ties, loose-fitting suits and a signature curved shirt collar favored by hipsters and gangsters. He toured with pianist George Shearing and loved to play golf, shooting in the low eighties. He made numerous television appearances and was the first black singer to grace the cover of Life magazine.
In 1960, during the World Series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the New York Yankees, he sang the national anthem. In 1986, he was honored at Heinz Heinz during a local jazz festival. By that time, he had 11 gold records to his credit. That same year, he made his last recording, titled “Billy Eckstine Sings With Benny Carter.”
The father of five boys and two girls, Mr. Eckstine sometimes performed with his daughter, Gina, the youngest of his seven children. He died in Pittsburgh in March 1993.