Friday, March 29, 2013

Who the @%&$# Is Billy Eckstine?

My audio buddy looked at me like I had two heads. "You don't know who Billy Eckstine is?" Yeah, I know, I know, I told him. Just someone who slipped through the cracks. I'd just ransacked my buddy's LP collection, which is currently so large that he has it all boxed up in storage, and I walked away with about 150 titles. After cleaning and playing each one, I determined the winner by far was a Mercury Stereo pressing of the 1961 album Billy Eckstine & Quincy Jones at Basin Street East. Billy's rich baritone on the album is something to behold, his warm vibrato sent chills down my spine. Who was this guy and why hadn't I heard of him? I checked out his Wikipedia entry, and sure enough Billy Eckstine was huge in the '40s and '50s. I should have known who he was.

"I was the Fabian of the '40s," he actually tells the crowd at Basin Street East at one point, and the audience laughs appreciatively in response. Yes, Billy Eckstine was somebody, a big and confidence voice that shouldn't have been forgotten twenty years after his prime, or even now. One of the most interesting stories I found about Billy concerned Miles Davis and his descent into substance abuse. Billy, who was famous for being a snappy dresser, saw Miles at a low point, looked him over and said, "Lookin' good, Miles." Miles cleaned up shortly after that.

This album's performance, which is presented as sort of a recap of Billy's career, is structured around two medleys: one condenses Billy's biggest hits such as "I'm Falling for You," "Fool That I Am" and "In the Still of the Night," and the other features Billy's favorite Duke Ellington compositions such as "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and "Sophisticated Lady." The most thrilling aspect of Billy's voice is his range; his famous deep baritone is sort of like an idling engine that draws the listener in, and then he steps on the gas and hits the higher notes with remarkable ease. Quincy Jones, in turn, reminds me that he had a respectable career before he became a record industry mogul and pop music icon. His band sounds tight, focused and yet still there to have fun.

This record isn't perfect. The crowd sounds canned and distant and lacks the spontaneity you might hear on other recordings of the time--Harry Belafonte comes to mind. And there's just a tad too much surface noise on this copy (not my buddy's fault--there was still a price tag on the front cover so he got it second hand as well). But I'd love to see this album reissued by someone like Chad Kassem or MoFi. It's a lost treasure and I highly recommend you keep an eye out for it.

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