William Clarence Eckstine was an American jazz and pop singer and a bandleader during the swing and bebop eras. He was noted for his rich, almost operatic bass-baritone voice.
In 2019, Eckstine was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award “for performers who, during their lifetimes, have made creative contributions of outstanding artistic significance to the field of recording.” His recording of “I Apologize” (MGM, 1948) was given the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999.
The New York Times described him as an “influential band leader” whose “suave bass-baritone” and “full-throated, sugary approach to popular songs inspired singers like Earl Coleman, Johnny Hartman, Joe Williams, Arthur Prysock, and Lou Rawls.”
Eckstine was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States, the son of William Eckstein, a chauffeur, and Charlotte Eckstein, a seamstress. Eckstine’s paternal grandparents were William F. Eckstein and Nannie Eckstein, a mixed-race, married couple who lived in Washington, D.C.; both were born in 1863.
William was born in Prussia (Germany), and Nannie in Virginia. Billy’s sister, Maxine, was a high school teacher. Eckstine attended Peabody High School in Pittsburgh.
After high school, he moved to Washington, D.C. where he attended Armstrong High School, St. Paul Normal and Industrial School, and Howard University. He left Howard in 1933 after winning first place in an amateur talent contest, imitating Cab Calloway singing a nursery rhyme and scatting.
He married his first wife June in 1942. After their divorce in 1952, he married actress and model Carolle Drake in 1953, and they remained married until his death. He was the father of four children by his second marriage including Ed Eckstine, a president of Mercury Records; Guy Eckstine, a Columbia and Verve Records A&R executive and record producer; international singer Charlotte Eckstine; and singer Gina Eckstine.