July 8: Jazz singer & bandleader, Billy Eckstine was born on this date in 1914...

... he died on March 8, 1993.

Raised in Washington, D.C., William Clarence “Billy” Eckstine began singing at the age of seven and entered many amateur talent shows. He had originally planned on a football career, but after breaking his collar bone, he made music his focus. He attended Howard University but left in 1933 before graduating after winning first place in an amateur talent contest.

After working his way west to Chicago, Eckstine joined Earl Hines' Grand Terrace Orchestra in 1939, staying with the band as vocalist and, occasionally, trumpeter, until 1943. By that time, he had begun to make a name for himself through the Hines band's radio shows with such juke box hits as "Stormy Monday Blues" and his own "Jelly Jelly."

In 1944, Eckstine formed his own big band and made it a fountainhead for young musicians who would reshape jazz by the end of the decade, including Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Charlie Parker, and Fats Navarro. Tadd Dameron and Gil Fuller were among the band's arrangers, and Sarah Vaughan was one of his vocalists.


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The Billy Eckstine Orchestra was the first bop big-band, and its leader reflected bop innovations by stretching his vocal harmonics into his normal ballads. Despite the group's modernist slant, Eckstine hit the charts often during the mid 1940s, with Top Ten entries including "A Cottage for Sale" and "Prisoner of Love." Eckstine, popularly known as Mr. B, also played trumpet, valve trombone and guitar.

After a few years of, Eckstine became a solo performer in 1947, and seamlessly made the transition to singing string-filled ballads. He recorded more than a dozen hits during the late 1940s, including "My Foolish Heart" and "I Apologize." He was one of the first artists to sign with the newly-established MGM Records, and had immediate hits with revivals of "Everything I Have Is Yours," Richard Rodgers’ and Lorenz Hart’s "Blue Moon" and Juan Tizol’s "Caravan."

Eckstine had further success in 1950 with "My Foolish Heart" and a revival of the 1931 Bing Crosby hit, "I Apologize." However, he was unable to sustain his recording success throughout the decade.

While enjoying success in the middle-of-the-road and pop fields, Eckstine occasionally returned to his jazz roots, recording with Vaughan, Count Basie and Quincy Jones for separate LPs, and he regularly topped the Metronome and Downbeat polls in the Top Male Vocalist category: He won Esquire magazine's New Star Award in 1946; the Down Beat magazine Readers Polls from 1948 to 1952; and the Metronome magazine award as "Top Male Vocalist" from 1949 to 1954.

Among Eckstine's recordings of the 1950s was a 1957 duet with Sarah Vaughan, "Passing Strangers," a minor hit in 1957, but an initial No.22 success in the UK Singles Chart. Even before giving up 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.

The 1960 Las Vegas live album, No Cover, No Minimum, featured Eckstine taking a few trumpet solos as well. He recorded several albums for Mercury and Roulette during the early 1960s, and he appeared on Motown for a few standards albums during the mid to late 1960s.

After recording sparingly during the 1970s for Al Bell's, Stax/Enterprise imprint, Eckstine made his last recording, the Grammy-nominated Billy Eckstine Sings with Benny Carter in 1986.

Eckstine was a style leader and noted sharp dresser. He designed and patented a high roll collar that formed a "B" over a Windsor-knotted tie, which became known as a "Mr. B. Collar."

Eckstine died on March 8,  1993, at the age of 78.