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Eckstine bio reveals local legend

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‘Mr. B: The Music and Life of Billy Eckstine'

Author: Cary Ginell

Publisher: Hal Leonard Books, $18.99, 208 pages

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Author Cary Ginell puts together a strong case for greater renown for Pittsburgh native Billy Eckstine in his new biography of the singer-bandleader.

In the quick-moving “Mr. B: The Music and Life of Billy Eckstine,” the music historian delivers a detailed account of the singer (1914-93) who stayed popular for five decades. But, perhaps more importantly, he also put together a big band that moved jazz into the bebop era with stars such as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker.

Yet, Ginell bemoans, “despite the trails he blazed as popular music's first African-American romantic icon, his legacy has been obscured” largely because of the night-club nature of his work.

The book is filled with detail including the Germanic heritage of the family, dating back to William Eckstein, who emigrated to the United States in the 1850s. William Eckstein's son, Billy's grandfather, married an African-American woman in the 1880s.

Billy's name was changed to Eckstine by a promoter who was irked at some audiences thinking he was Jewish, not black.

The book details, sometimes record by record, Eckstine's career as a singer, nightclub star and bandleader. But the biggest part of his career was in the midst of a record strike by the American Federation of Musicians, limiting his audience.

As rock 'n' roll and rhythm-and-blues grabbed the public in the 1950s, his vibrato-laden style took more hits.

Ginell says Eckstine's efforts to be an African-American version of Frank Sinatra show a “sense of purpose” similar to that of Jackie Robinson's.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bkarlovits@tribweb.com or 412-320-7852.

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