William Clarence Eckstine (July 8, 1914 – March 8, 1993) was an American jazz and pop singer and a bandleader during the swing era. He was noted for his rich, almost operatic bass-baritone voice. His recording of "I Apologize" (MGM, 1948) was given the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999. The New York Times described him as an "influential band leader" whose "suave bass-baritone" and "full-throated, sugary approach to popular songs inspired singers like Earl Coleman, Johnny Hartman, Joe Williams, Arthur Prysock and Lou Rawls."
Eckstine was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the son of William Eckstein, a chauffeur, and Charlotte Eckstein, a seamstress. Eckstine's paternal grandparents were William F. Eckstein and Nannie Eckstein, a mixed-race, married couple who lived in Washington, D.C.; both were born in 1863. William was born in Prussia, and Nannie in Virginia. Billy's sister, Maxine, was a high school teacher.
Eckstine attended Peabody High School before moving to Washington, DC. He attended Armstrong High School, St. Paul Normal and Industrial School, and Howard University. He left Howard in 1933 after winning first place in an amateur talent contest.
A State Historical Marker is placed at 5913 Bryant Street in Pittsburgh's Highland Park neighborhood to mark the house where Eckstine grew up.
Heading to Chicago, Eckstine joined Earl Hines' Grand Terrace Orchestra in 1939, staying with the band 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 the finishing school for adventurous young musicians who would shape the future of jazz. Included in this group were Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Charlie Parker, and Fats Navarro, as well as vocalist Sarah Vaughan. Tadd Dameron, Gil Fuller and Jerry Valentine were among the band's arrangers. The Billy Eckstine Orchestra is considered to be the first bop big-band, and had Top Ten chart entries that included "A Cottage for Sale" and "Prisoner of Love". Both were awarded a gold disc by the RIAA.
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." In 1946 Eckstine starred as the hero in the musical film Rhythm in a Riff, which also starred Ann Baker and Lucky Millinder.
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).
Eckstine was the subject of a three-page profile in the 25 April 1950 issue of LIFE magazine, in which the photographer Martha Holmes accompanied Eckstine and his entourage during a week in New York City. One photograph taken by Holmes and published in LIFE showed Eckstine with a group of white female admirers, one of whom had her hand on his shoulder and her head on his chest while she laughed. Eckstine's biographer Cary Ginell, wrote of the image that Holmes "...captured a moment of shared exuberance, joy, and affection, unblemished by racial tension." Holmes would later describe the photograph as the favorite of the many she had taken in her career as it "...told just what the world should be like". The photograph was considered so controversial that an editor at LIFE sought personal approval from Henry Luce, the magazine's publisher, who said it should be published. The publication of the image caused letters of protest to be written to the magazine, and singer Harry Belafonte subsequently said of the publication that "When that photo hit, in this national publication, it was if a barrier had been broken". The controversy that resulted from the photograph had a seminal effect on the trajectory of Eckstine's career. Tony Bennett would recall that "It changed everything...Before that, he had a tremendous following...and it just offended the white community", a sentiment shared by pianist Billy Taylor who said that the "coverage and that picture just slammed the door shut for him".
The 1960 Las Vegas live album, No Cover, No Minimum, featured Eckstine taking a few trumpet solos and showcased his nightclub act. He recorded albums for Mercury and Roulette in the early 1960s, and appeared on Motown albums during the mid to late 1960s. After recording sparingly during the 1970s for Al Bell's Stax/Enterprise imprint, the international touring Eckstine made his last recording, the Grammy-nominated Billy Eckstine Sings with Benny Carter in 1986.
He married his first wife, June, in 1942. After their divorce in 1952, he remarried shortly after to actress and model Carolle Drake in 1953, and they remained married until his death. He was the father of four children by his second marriage and two step-children, including Ed Eckstine, a president of Mercury Records; Guy Eckstine, a Columbia and Verve Records A&R executive and record producer; singer Gina Eckstine; and actor Ronnie Eckstine.
Eckstine suffered a stroke while performing in Salina, Kansas, in April 1992, and never performed again. Though his speech improved in the hospital, Eckstine had a heart attack, and he died a few months later on March 8, 1993, aged 78. Eckstine's final word was "Basie".