By the time he reached his peak popularity in 1950, he rivaled Frank Sinatra as the country's most popular vocalist. In fact he was dubbed the sepia Sinatra, although he was known most often as Mr. B. Billy Eckstine was a smooth singer also noted as a premier jazz bandleader in the 1940s, gathering many of the performers in the innovative bebop style into a unique large band.
Born William Clarence Eckstein in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1914, Eckstine had the spelling of his name changed early in his career by a club owner. The family moved to Washington, D.C. Eckstine's parents stressed education, and he graduated from Washington's Armstrong High School. He began to sing when he was 11, but was a football player in high school and aspired to a sports career for a time. Eckstine went on to college at the city's Howard University. A first-place finish in a talent contest at a Washington theater put an end to his educational career, however; he dropped out of school to sing full time.
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