Cary Ginell: Mr B: The Music and Life of Billy Eckstine

Long overdue, this is a biography of a singer and musician who was one of the game changers in jazz and modern music. Unjustly overlooked because of his influence over hundreds of singers in his wake, Billy Eckstine’s life, music and attitude are spotlighted, reflected upon and appreciated in this just under 200 page book by Cary Ginell.

Eckstine, or “B” as he was known to a legion of fans, musicians and pro athletes, was the first black singer to leave the world of the blues and focused on ballads and love songs, something considered radical in those days. Yes, he did become  popular through material like “Stormy Monday” and “Jelly, Jelly,” but it was the baritonist’s delivery of material such as “Everything I Have Is  Yours” and “I Apologize” that made teenagers, both black and white, swoon with glee, overtaking even Frank Sinatra in popularity for a number of years.

This book accurately and cogently details Eckstine’s life from his birth through his days as Earl Hine’s singer with Sarah Vaughan and including the fascinating years when he put together what was arguably the first “bebop” orchestra with the likes of Charlie Parker and  Dizzy Gillespie. From there, his rise to pop star highlights the loyalty, feistiness and determined nature of Eckstine as he tries to break through the barriers of becoming a pop star for both black and white teenagers, as well as his unsuccessful attempt to break into movies as something besides the usual roles associated with blacks at the time, such as porters or janitors. Not only was he ahead of his time musically (even putting out Brazilian/bossa nova music years before Getz struck paydirt), but he was defiant in not succumbing to the expectations of not only the entertainment industry, but white suburbia. Much of his sardonic wit is chronicled here, as when, as an avid golfer, he was asked what his handicap was, he replied, “I’m Negro performer with a Jewish name.” His uncompromising nature, both to his benefit and detriment, reflected in his family life and Civil Rights work with Martin Luther King, are chronicled in this essential book about a man who was both ahead of his time and a reflection of his time.

Hal Leonard Books

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