Billy Eckstine’s Mirror, A Dark Image of Race in America


Billy Eckstine’s Dark Mirror

A career stalled by racism, a sacrifice and lessons learned…

Billy Eckstine’s Dark Mirror, 70 years later, tells us how raw bigotry wrecked his career. The most popular singer in the country crossed a phony racial line and was brought down, based on skin color alone.

Reporting by David Stone

Assorted Ideas, Large & Small

Eckstine’s biographer Cary Ginell, wrote that Martha Holmes “…captured a moment of shared exuberance, joy, and affection, unblemished by racial tension.”

Wikipedia: Billy Eckstine

Holmes called it her favorite. It “…told just what the world should be like,” she said.

But the mirror darkened immediately.

Racism on the Red Bus

This Martha Holmes photo became Billy Eckstine’s dark mirror. A successful career turned abruptly downhill.

A first threatening whiff of hate…

A note accompanied the photograph in a show at the New York Historical Society in 2019.

“When that photo hit, in this national publication, it was if a barrier had been broken.”

Harry Belafonte

In 1950, Billy Eckstine drew a larger audience at the Paramount Theatre in New York than Frank Sinatra had in the same place. But then, a three-page profile in Life included this photo.

Eckstine, a beautiful man with a baritone to match, is surrounded by happy women. One nearly collapses into his embrace.

But racists were outraged, and after Holmes’s picture went public, Eckstine’s career turned straight downhill.

Get the Idea: The Billy Eckstine Orchestra

The Making of Billy Eckstine’s Dark Mirror

In 1944, the Billy Eckstine Orchestra became the first bop big band. He shaped the future of jazz, bringing in Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis and Sarah Vaughn.

Going solo, Eckstine recorded over a dozen hits in the late 1940s. But that string ended shortly after the Life spread appeared.

“It changed everything…Before that, he had a tremendous following…and it just offended the white community,” Tony Bennett told Ginell. And Billy Taylor summed up: “…coverage and that picture just slammed the door shut for him”

So, Henry Luce approved publishing the photo because it showed social progress, but it also spurred the opposite.

Billy Eckstine’s sacrifice stirred the grounds for 1960s protests and advances in civil rights that followed. The battle’s not won, but racists aren’t able to cause this much damage.

But Billy Eckstine’s dark mirror can’t be erased. As much as it shows how far we’ve come, it also tells us we have a ways to go.

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