Billy Eckstine may never have pursued music had he not broken his collarbone while playing football for Howard University. It is hugely fortunate that the Pittsburgh native did, though, because not only did his sonorous baritone and musical dexterity combine to grace some incredible recordings, but those recordings would then go on to inspire and pave the way for everyone from Nat “King” Cole to Miles Davis to Sammy Davis Jr.
Newark native Sarah Vaughan agreed to accompany her friend on piano when she played the Apollo Theater talent show in 1942. It’s a very good thing that she did, because the experience encouraged her to come back and audition as a vocalist herself, winning a weeklong gig opening for Ella Fitzgerald that attracted the attention of Earl Hines. Hines asked her to join his band, which featured Eckstine on vocals. When Eckstine soon formed his own bebop big band combo—which featured Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker—he asked Sarah to join as well. She did, though she left in 1945 to pursue a solo career. Billy and Sarah remained close friends, however, and would record duets several times over the course of their careers.
Which brings us to 1953, and this lovely duet: “Dedicated to You.” The way Sarah’s vocal rises and descends on top of Billy’s around the 1:30 mark is unexpected, and shows how Sarah really used her voice like a musical instrument.
Sarah’s vocal range—especially the lower end—and technical ability would only grow stronger, as this 1958 version of “Tenderly” demonstrates.
And this take on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” speaks for itself. Sublime.
Obviously, Billy Eckstine was no slouch in the lower register department—not even in his younger days. Here he is in the 1940’s with “Prisoner of Love.”
And “Misty.” How he holds that last note is just beautiful.
Finally, in one of his many 1950’s television variety show appearances, Billy does “September Song,” which was made justly popular by Nat “King” Cole and George Shearing. He takes the song in a different direction, but it remains soothing and rich in its melancholy.
Sarah died in 1990, while Billy died in 1993. In 1985, they performed together again at the Apollo, with the skill of old pros and the warmth of old friends. Enjoy.