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Black History Month


Legendary jazz man came from Pittsburgh

A sign on Hampton Street in Highland Park stands as testimony to the man from Pittsburgh who was one of the great jazz legends of all time.

Born in 1914, Billy Eckstine grew up in Highland Park. He sang for the first time in public at a church bazaar when he was only 11.

He graduated from Peabody High School in East Liberty, and he loved music and football. He was offered a sports scholarship, but he broke his collarbone soon afterward and decided the pursuit of music would be less dangerous.

At age 18, he went to Washington, D.C., to compete in a talent contest. His deep baritone voice took first place at the regional level. He sang ``Star Dust'' in New York City to win the top prize and went on to become one of America's most popular ballad singers in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

``The Great Mr. B'' set a standard for black men as romantic leads. Young men, both black and white, copied his style of dressing by rolling up their shirt collars and draping a jacket off the body.

Though he sang mostly ballads, in 1943, he formed a jazz band that became the first true bebop big band. Future jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughan were part of the group during its four-year existence.

After the band folded, Eckstine continued as a solo performer, gaining international fame. He had 11 gold records and many Top 20 songs.

Eckstine loved coming home to Pittsburgh. He was an important part of the jazz scene in the Hill District when it was one of the jazz centers of the world.

One of his performances at the old Paramount Theatre broke an attendance record set by another legend, Frank Sinatra. Eckstine died in Pittsburgh in 1993.

A year later, the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania erected a marker at his childhood home in Highland Park to honor this local black entertainment pioneer.

-- By Debra Alward

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