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Billy Eckstine was a trailblazing bandleader who helped usher in the new sound of be-bop alongside some of jazz music’s legends before etching out a successful solo career. The Pittsburgh, Pa. native was born on July 8, 1914.

William Clarence Eckstein, (the original spelling of his name), wanted to be a football player as a young man but a collarbone injury and winning a $10 singing competition moved him to change course. In 1939, bandleader Earl Hines named Eckstine as a lead vocalist in his band, leading to early success due to his good looks and golden baritone voice.

In 1944, Eckstine, who was also adept at playing instruments, formed what jazz experts say is the first be-bop band starring the likes of Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Fats Navarro, and singer Sarah Vaughn. In the Billy Eckstine Orchestra, the bandleader played the trumpet. He left the band officially in 1947 and went on to have a prolific solo career, releasing over three dozen albums.

Eckstine was an inspiration to other musicians such as Quincy Jones, Duke Ellington, Sammy Davis Jr., and Lionel Hampton among others. Modern singers like Lou Rawls and Joe Williams were compared to Eckstine due to their own rich, deep voices.

Billy Eckstine was married twice and was father and stepfather to four kids, all of whom followed him in the entertainment industry. Guy and Ed Eckstine both worked as execs in the music industry, Gina is a singer and Ronnie is an actor.

After suffering a stroke during a performance Billy Eckstine passed in 1993 at the age of 78.

PHOTO: Library Of Congress, Public Domain

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