Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Mr. B is Cary Ginell's Important Biography of Billy Eckstine

Mr. B.: The Music and Life of Billy Eckstine
by Cary Ginell
2013: Hal Leonard Books 

Cary Ginell, author of a recent biography of Cannonball Adderly, has a new book as part of the Hal Leonard Jazz Biography Series, Mr. B.: The Music and Life of Billy Eckstine. Like his biography of Adderly, this is intended to be a concise and accessible biography. I found this, like the Adderly book, a brisk and well done read. In researching Eckstine's life, Ginell mined print source sews reports, interviews and like from like the Pittsburgh Courier, DownBeat, Metronome and other sources along with interviews with those that knew him well. Ginell provides a chronicle of Mr. B's life from growing up in Pittsburgh, going to school, his early days as a performer, changing the spelling of his last name from Eckstein to Eckstine, joining the Earl Hines Orchestra and later after that band disbanded his formation of the legendary bebop big band, his days as one of America's most popular singers and more.

His lengthy recording career is recounted as well from the big band days to his substantial legacy as a singer of classic pop songs. Ginell recounts his successes and triumphs as well as frustrations and the obstacles of racism that limited and frustrated some of his ambitions. It was ironic that with Earl Hines he had two major hits, Jelly, Jelly and Stormy Monday Blues (a very different song than the T-Bone Walker song), as he generally resisted singing blues, in great part because record companies at the time generally limited most Black recording and artists to blues. 

Ginell details his recording career and goes in detail about his time with Savoy, with whom his big band made so many legendary recordings, ad then his signing with MGM. He had signed with MGM as a single with the hope of also having a career in films, but a factor that the Studios provided a lack of suitable (that is non-stereotypical) roles for Blacks led to his hopes and ambitions being dashed. Racism was also a factor in the decline of his status as one of America's leading popular vocalists who at a time had a status on the level of Frank Sinatra. 

Ginell recounts the unintended consequence of the 1950 publication in Life Magazine of a pictorial on Eckstine that included an innocent looking picture (included in the pictures and illustrations incorporated in this biography) of Mr. B with admiring white teenage girls after a show. The reaction to this included a letter from a Georgian saying he was disgusted with Life for printing these pictures, and that was a printable response. As Ginell observes, this photo with an indication of racial tolerance was much "too early to do anything but alienate the still regressive and prejudiced American society." It did not open doors and in fact shut doors for Eckstine with Ginell quoting Tony Bennett and Dr. Billy Taylor.

Mr. B continued to be a significant recording artist and performing through the fifties and sixties and Ginell traces his sessions for MGM, and then Mercury and Roulette with whom he made some of his greatest recordings. And he went from headlining the Paramount in New York in the forties to becoming a major attraction on the night club circuit such as New York's Copacabana and Las Vegas as well as the Catskills and Pocono Mountains. He active involvement with the Civil Rights Movement is also recounted. 

Ginell also details Eckstine's various aspects of his domestic life, including his divorces. His children's recollections of growing up with his as their dad also provide perspective on his life. He had some financial issues including apparently some tax debts although Ginell does not explain the reason underlying these debts. The IRS did seize and sell property to pay off a quarter million dollar debt in 1986.

Billy Eckstine was a trailblazer as well as a great artist. Ginell observes that he was "popular music's first romantic African American icon," his legacy was obscured because while he had many hits, he lacked an iconic recording like Sinatra's My Way or Bing Crosby's White Christmas. He made his mark in live performances, of which few were documented on a recording and a substantial body of his recording carer remains un-reissued. Be he deserves better. He struggled to be treated as the equal of white entertainers, which "showed a resiliency,sense of purpose and defiance that is as essential to the American experience as the efforts of Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The possessor of one of the most glorious voices in history does not deserve his anonymity." 2014 will be the centennial of his birth and it is time to reassess his talent and career "as one of the most important and essential bodies of work of the twentieth century." Gary Ginell's Mr. B.: The Music and Life of Billy Eckstine, makes a strong case for this re-assessment and is an important addition to the jazz literature.  

I received my review copy from a publicist for the publisher. Here is some vintage Billy Eckstine.

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