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Eckstine. Billy Eckstine.
Thoughts on the singer's unjustly unheralded collaboration with Isaac Hayes, and a toast to Terry Teachout.
Billy Eckstine. A name you don’t hear much. Certainly nowhere to the extent of Nat Cole though both fueled profound innovations in jazz: Eckstine through his fronting the first bop big band, a hive of modernism whose members, including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey, Miles Davis and Tadd Dameron, set the future course of the music, and Cole with this equally groundbreaking trio. But Eckstine’s and Cole’s supreme achievement was in proving that male pop singing was not exclusively the domain of white America. In their own way, they were almost every bit the pioneer that Sidney Poitier was, whose passing on January 7 hit deep and hard.
Concerning Eckstine, consider the words of Lionel Hampton:
“He was one of the greatest singers of all time … We were proud of him because he was the first Black popular singer in our race. We, the whole music profession, were so happy to see him achieve what he was doing. He was one of the greatest singers of that era. He was our singer.”
Eckstine was Mr. B, suave and a savvy dresser, blessed with a rich, deep voice, an impeccable sense of phrasing and a way with vibrato. The sky was the limit if not for a photo included in a Life magazine piece on the singer in which Eckstine is surrounded by a group of young female fans in 1950 New York. One places her left hand as well as her head on his shoulder. Just a moment in the life of a singer conquering the world preserved by the camera of photographer Martha Holmes. The photo, which Holmes declared as the favourite of all that she had taken, is iconic. It brims with carefree joy. It also required the approval of Life’s publisher, Henry Luce, to be published for the fan touching Eckstine was white, turning an image that is evocative of an unguarded moment of profound enthusiasm into something explosive for those clinging to the forever-outmoded belief that the races shall not mix. The backlash that the photo inspired is believed by some to have permanently stymied Eckstine’s career.
By 1971, popular singers, all the way from Eckstine to Sinatra, were in a state of atrophy. The popular-song market had been almost entirely subsumed by the youth explosion of the sixties. Rodgers and Hart, and the Gershwins had made way for Lennon and McCartney, and the Glimmer Twins (Jagger and Richards). One gimmick used to try to grasp to any remaining relevancy was to tackle the very material that had challenged their foothold on the record industry in the first place. That was the approach for Eckstine’s first album for Enterprise, a subsidiary of Stax Records. It resulted in a classic that has been overlooked for over a half-century.
Enterprise with Isaac Hayes’ domain. He was one of the guiding forces—if not THE guiding force—of Stax, especially after the label’s relationship with Atlantic ended suddenly in 1968. Hayes emerged almost immediately from the background as a songwriter, producer and pianist (hear any recording by Booker T. & the M.G.’s and if there’s a piano on the track, more often that not, that’s Hayes on the ivories) to the foreground with the release of Hot Buttered Soul, which took soul to the outer limits of length and sound. As symphonic as it is sensual, it propelled Hayes as an innovator, blazing one of the paths forward for soul music at the dawn of the seventies. Hayes was also a traditionalist, in the sense of the influence that Nat Cole and Eckstine had on his singing. So, perhaps it was inevitable that Hayes would produce Stormy, Eckstine’s debut effort for Enterprise. It's that rare gem involving a pop singer embracing a new aesthetic where there is a perfect balance of singer, material and sound. Hayes’ involvement is a huge reason for its success as was the employment of others involved in Hot Buttered Soul and the follow-up albums The Isaac Hayes Movement and …To Be Continued, including co-arranger Dale Warren and the Bar-Kays.
The opening medley, a pairing of ‘Just a Little Lovin’’ with ‘What the World Needs Now Is Love,’ starts with muted brass that immediately establishes the classic sound that defined Isaac Hayes and provides a sophisticated underpinning for Eckstine, whose creamy, coffee-rich baritone fits in like a glove. Both songs are ace sixties pop numbers and Eckstine croons them as it they may very well have been written for him. If the arrangement and instrumentation were more traditional, not unlike what was used for many of Eckstine’s previous pop recordings, the divergence between singer and material would have been all but unavoidable, in danger of treading into the realm of the ridiculous or embarrassingly incongruous. Utilizing Hayes’ sound permits Eckstine to meet the moment. As if to further stress the point, there is an extended fade after Eckstine finishes singing, allowing the listener to luxuriate in the soundscape, a group of female background singers repeating “what the world needs now is love, sweet love” over and over again.
Jimmy Webb’s ‘Name of My Sorrow’ is less successful, but the song’s rumination of regret over a succession of lost loves reaches its zenith with the name of each lover chronicled in the song whispered by the female singers at the end, recognition that some regrets remain to haunt rather than be overcome.
That theme continues with Eckstine’s cover of the Classic IV’s ‘Stormy’ but with far more satisfying results. We know this will be case right off the bat with a saxophone line that is an instant and everlasting earworm. The arrangement by Hayes and Dale Warren is superb: the strings often mimic a storm, the use of flutes and a pizzicato part for the strings are indelible and the female singers add a dreamy quality as they answer Eckstine’s singing of the song’s primary refrain. His performance here is utterly magical. Taken together, it is an example of “Quiet Storm” long before there was such a thing. It was hearing this recording on the wonderful Isaac Hayes anthology, The Spirit of Memphis (1962-1976) that first hipped me to Eckstine’s work with Hayes. Picking up the full album a few months later confirmed that this is special music, a major undiscovered triumph.
A cover of Stevie Wonder’s ‘My Cherie Amour’ is really the only time on Stormy that we reach the danger zone, where things edge into the world of kitsch. The main culprit here is the tempo which is a hair too fast for comfort. ‘When You Look in the Mirror (You’re Looking at the One I Love)’ is a reminder of Eckstine’s prowess as a supremely romantic ballader, elevating the material, investing the proper amount of emotion so that it becomes a deeply affecting listen.
By today’s standards, ‘The Luckiest Man in the World’ is seriously dated, mining the tropes of the man as breadwinner and woman as homemaker, and yet, the sincerity with which Eckstine sings the song almost casts these reservations aside. The closer ‘I Wanna By Your Baby,’ the only song written on the album by Hayes and his frequent songwriting collaborator, David Porter, brings all the joys of Stormy together: a rich Eckstine vocal, classic Hayes touches like the rhythmic shift when Mr. B signs “all you gotta do is call,” and just the right amount of gloss from the female back-up singers. It leaves me, and perhaps others as well, wanting more.
But that’s all there is to Stormy. Seven songs, barely a half-hour’s worth of music. On its release, the album didn't cause much of a ripple. Today, the fact that Isaac Hayes produced a Billy Eckstine record is met with surprise or a shrug. But it works, oh my, how it works. Intoxicating. Thrilling. An absolute gem.
A toast to Terry Teachout: The recent passing of critic (and so much more) Terry Teachout is a profoundly sad event. Like many who followed him through his profoundly human and often exalted Twitter feed, I felt like I knew him even though I only interacted with him a few brief times there. I was profoundly humbled when he retweeted several of the pieces I have written for my ‘Listening Sessions’ Substack. The fact that my work even slightly caught Mr. Teachout’s interest felt deeply motivating and, quite frankly, amazing. He also subscribed! There have been many remembrances speaking to Mr. Teachout’s endless depths of warmth, kindness, generosity, humanity and service to the world of the arts, including by Ted Gioia, Marc Myers, Ethan Iverson and a former serviceman. I hope you may take a moment to check them out. He will be sorely missed.
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