I remember when I gave my father the best gift he ever received.
It was 1991, and I was a young journalist in Kansas City. I was assigned to interview legendary and famous singer Billy Eckstine–(nicknamed the great Mr. B). Eckstine was to perform at the Kansas City Jazz Festival. He was an enormously popular African American balladeer during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. According to some accounts, at one time, he was considered “The Black Frank Sinatra.” His deep baritone voice, good looks, and smooth style wowed women and inspired men to emulate him in every way. As a kid, I remember my Dad playing his records and attempting to sing a verse or two on many occasions.
Despite buying probably every album Eckstine recorded in 30 or so years, Dad never got to meet or even see his idol in concert. That all changed, in an indirect sort of way. With a confident and, I’m sure, what some people would call a cocky strut, I walked into the lobby of a posh downtown Kansas City restaurant. A few feet away from the entrance, I spotted Billy Eckstine sitting at a table. He was wearing a white jogging suit, eating lunch, and chatting with his agent, with whom I had spoken with earlier. I walked up to the table, introduced myself, and they invited me to join them. The first thing I said to him was, “My father is your biggest fan. I grew up listening to Dad play I Apologize and A Cottage for Sale)–two of Eckstine’s biggest hits and most memorable songs). He sipped on a glass of water, smiled, looked at me, and said, “You tell your father that he has excellent taste.” We all laughed.
For the next hour, I had one of the most enjoyable and memorable interviews of my career with this musical legend. Eckstine shared his views about how the music industry had changed and how contemporary artists were just performers and not the smooth stylists or vocalists they were during his era. He also shared how his protege singer Sarah Vaughan—(nicknamed Sassy and the Divine One)–was one of the best vocalists of a generation. “The lady could sing,” he said. Vaughan–a native of Newark, had passed away less than a year earlier from lung cancer. “I didn’t want to see her like that–hooked up to tubes and wires. I just couldn’t see her like that,” he said.” At the end of the interview, the agent took a picture of Eckstine and me. He autographed a photo of himself to my father with the inscription, To Robert, All the Best,” Mr. B.
Later, I called my father back home in New Jersey and shared the big news with him. From what I could tell, Dad, an occasional skeptic, especially when there isn’t immediate proof of something, was cautiously excited. I mailed the photo, went to the newsroom, and wrote the story. Two days later, Dad called me with a jubilance in his voice that I seldom heard over the years. “You interviewed Mr. B and got his autograph for me!!” A day or so later, I sent my published story and photo of Eckstine and myself to him. Dad was euphoric and overjoyed like I had never seen before!! He told EVERYONE from family, friends, and neighbors, “Glenn interviewed Billy Eckstine! My son interviewed my idol, the great Mr. B!” Eckstine passed away shortly after our interview. He was 78.
Later that year, when I flew home to visit my family for Christmas, the autographed photo of Eckstine was hanging neatly on the wall in Mom and Dad’s bedroom. It remains there today, 30 years later. It will be 12 years this Christmas that Dad passed away. However, I know that he is still enjoying the best Christmas gift I ever gave him.