Historical Markers
Billy Eckstine Historical Marker
Mouse over for marker text

Billy Eckstine

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
5913 Bryant Street, Highland Park, Pittsburgh

Dedication Date:
July 31, 1994

Behind the Marker

Billy Eckstine (on the right) with a whos who of Pittsburgh Jazz musicians, circa 1946-1950.
Billy Eckstine (standing on the right) with a who's who of Pittsburgh Jazz musicians,...
While touring the South during the 1940s, Billy Eckstine stopped in a café to buy a cup of coffee. When the owner reminded him that he "couldn't drink the coffee in here," Eckstine replied, "I'm not going to drink it in here," then poured it down the front of the man's shirt and walked out.

Like many entertainers of his generation, Eckstine was a proud and complex man. Part artist and part showman, he was handsome and an impeccable dresser. A consummate entertainer, he could sing, dance and play trumpet. During his long career he recorded dozens of hits as a crooning balladeer and led a ferocious, big band with some of the era's most fiery and brilliant improvisors.

Art Blakey playing drums, with Leo Parker, John Jackson, and Sonny Stitt playing saxophones, in the Billy Eckstine Band.
Pittsburgh's Art Blakey playing drums with the Billy Eckstine Band, circa 1945.
Born in Pittsburgh on July 8, 1914, Eckstine at age sixteen won a talent contest imitating the famed Cab Calloway. Interested in a career in music, he moved to Chicago and in 1939 joined the band of fellow Pennsylvanian Earl 'Fatha' Hines.

Hines, like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Louis Armstrong, started his band in the 1920s. By the late 1930s, however, there was already a generation gap in the music. The younger musicians were studying music theory, and taking the concepts of improvisation to new heights. The established bandleaders weren't sure where these new ideas and skills fit into the music. After all, these were dance orchestras. Was the public really ready for the kind of wild improvisations being developed by Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, and Dizzy Gillespie?

Perhaps because of his training on the trumpet, Eckstine was able to hear what these young instrumentalists were doing. It was Eckstine who encouraged Hines to hire Gillespie, Parker, and vocalist Sarah Vaughn. Eckstine left the Hines organization to form his own band, in 1944. It lasted only three years, but left a deep impression on the music world, for Eckstine was able to combine his sophisticated and elegant sense of ballad singing with instrumental styles then considered avant-garde.

Image of Earl Hines playing the piano. He is wearing a suit, hat, and dark sunglasses.
Earle "Fatha" Hines, circa 1947.
The Billy Eckstine Orchestra included an all star line up of musicians: Art Blakey (also from Pittsburgh) on drums, Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Dexter Gordon, and Gene Ammons in the saxophone section, Fats Navarro, Kenny Dorham and Dizzy Gillespie on trumpets, and the fabulous pianist Tadd Dameron, who also wrote the arrangements. The band was poorly recorded and poorly managed, but jazz aficionados and musicians across the country were held in rapt attention. As a teen, Miles Davis went to see the band. Years later he would describe it as the greatest musical thrill of his life. It was that night, Miles said, that made him sure he wanted to be a musician. When Fats Navarro left not long after, Eckstine hired Miles to replace him.
Billy Eckstine in a recording studio, leaning on a counter, with sheet music and a microphone in front of him. Visible through a window behind him is a small orchestra.
Billy Eckstine in the recording studio, circa 1948.

At the end of World War II, the music world was looking for hits, not innovation, and Eckstine was getting recognition for his solo recordings. In 1945 he had two hits that sold a million records each. For a while Eckstine used his earnings to support the orchestra, and his attention to Bebop gave the new form validation. But in 1947 he folded the band and concentrated on ballad singing. Recording with the new MGM label he had successive hits with "Everything I Have is Yours," Rodgers and Hart's "Blue Moon," and Ellington/Tizol's "Caravan."

Eckstine continued to have minor hit records throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Known as "Mr. B," he became a fashion plate and a true showman. His high, flared collars and one button blue flannel suits were labeled the "Mr. B. look." A 1951 review described him this way: "The voice is a robust, romantic baritone, with just a touch of huskiness on occasion to give it additional appeal.As for the delivery, much has been said and written about Billy's showmanship, the salient points of which are charm, poise and sincerity." But Eckstine was more than a handsome and flashy man. He was a man who could stand up for what was he felt was right, and a leader who brought out the best in those around him.

Eckstine continued touring and recording for decades. He died in Pittsburgh, in 1993 at the age of seventy-nine.
Back to Top