Ed Eckstine is an old friend and collaborator. He was the first Black president of one of the major labels. Before that, he worked with Al Green, Quincy Jones, Patti Austin, James Ingram, Chaka Khan, Ashford & Simpson, Rod Temperton, The Brothers Johnson, Michael Jackson, and Clive Davis. He ran a small imprint called Wing Records, and the Playa handled duties as the East Coast Director of Promotion for our small shop where we broke Vanessa Williams, Brian Mcknight and Tony Toni Tone. We are both fans of the NFL’s Los Angeles Raiders.
He is also the son of the legendary Billy Eckstine, who along with Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald became one of America’s earliest crossover sensations. The smooth baritone, romantic ballads, and good looks of Mr. B had many a female fan prepared to ignore the accepted segregationist norms of the day. Mr. B also fronted the first be-bop big band that included Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Sarah Vaughn, and a young Miles Davis. In his travels, Mr. B befriended another young legend, the great football innovator, Al Davis. Davis passed away last week at the age of 82; Ed has graciously consented to share a few memories with us of his old family friend. Enjoy.
My father Billy Eckstine passed away on, March 8, 1993 at the age of 79. A sad day for sure. Six months prior he’d suffered a stroke; when his body shut down, it was just a matter of time until that day would come. I was in my office in New York, tending to my duties as President of Mercury Records, when I received the call from my sisters informing me of his transition. I issued a press release on behalf of the family, felt an electric jolt throughout my body and braced myself for the outpouring of love that was surely to come. Within minutes my assistant buzzed me and told me that Al Davis was on line two.
“Eddie,” I heard in that voice that every football fan has heard, exaggeratedly imitated over the years, “I just heard about “B” and I’m absolutely sick.”
“Thanks, Mr. D, it is really nice to hear from you now. I know how much Pops and you loved each other, so this is special, and much appreciated,” I said.
“Let me tell you something, kid, your Dad was a special guy. My favorite sing-uh and a real Raid-uh. First Sass (Sarah Vaughan) and now B. This hurts, I miss the S.O.B. already.”
I heard sniffles on the other end of the phone, tried my best to console the man who had called to console me. In an attempt to lighten the mood I said to him: “Mr. D, I’ve known you since I was a kid, but I don’t know how you and Pops came to know each other. Tell me.”
JOHN MADDEN & AL DAVIS
THE LEGENDARY BILLY ECKSTINE SURROUNDED BY THREE MEMBERS OF THE SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
He said while laughing:
I was a kid, 19 or 20. I loved jazz, couldn’t get enough of it. I loved all of the singers — but Mr. B? That was my guy. Your Dad was playing on 52nd Street, and I was too young to get in at night so a lot of us kids would stand on the street, hovering outside the club door, listening to the music coming from the stage. In those days the artist would pull up in a cab, walk in the front door, and walk right by those of us on the street. Many would stop and sign autographs before entering the club.
I think it was a Thursday night, and I had positioned myself by the rail so when Billy arrived I would be right there to greet him. Couple of minutes later he pulls up, steps out of the cab, looking like a fucking king. When he stopped at the front, I said ‘hey Mr. B can I get an autograph? My name is Al.’ Girls are screaming and clawing at him, but he signed the piece of paper for me and went in. I stood outside and listened to two sets in the cold. When he left for the evening there I was to tell him, great set, B. He turned, shook my hand and disappeared into the night.
I was beside myself.
The next night I came back and did the same thing. When I offered my piece of paper for the autograph, I told him I had been there the night before, he said, ‘yeah I remember you’ — I now suspect that was bullshit. I was just another punk kid. But when he said that, I knew I had to stick around to see if I could really talk to him after the show.
Three sets later he appears and there I am standing there freezing my ass off. He looks at me and says, “it’s cold out here kid, go home.”
I looked at him and said can I talk to you for a minute Mr. B?
He must have felt sorry for me because he stopped and said, “what do you want?”
Billy, (like we’re pals, right) my girl and I are your biggest fans and I’m going to bring her to the matinee show tomorrow. You don’t know what it would do for me if when you get here tomorrow and you see us you’d make a point of saying hi to me.
I’ll never forget he looked at me and said, “sure kid, if you are here, I will. What was your name again?”
Al. Al Davis.
So my girl and I get to the club an hour and a half early. I didn’t want to blow this one. He pulls up, steps out, and is talking to someone. I immediately get nervous that he is going to forget.
Just then he turns around, looks at my girl and says, “hey Al, how you doing, buddy? This must be that pretty girl you’ve been telling me about — how you doing, honey?” She just melted. I felt like the coolest bastard in NYC.
He then turns to his manager and says, “make sure my buddy, Al, here gets a good table, and that nobody asks him how old he is. Tell them he is with me.”
“Let me tell you something, two people fell in love that night. The girl became my wife; and B, my fuckin’ man. Our paths crossed over the years. As I made my way in the football business, we shared many mutual friends. He was friends with so many of the great black players of the 50’s and 60’s like Buddy Young, Marion Motley, Tank Younger, Lenny Moore, Big Daddy Lipscombe, and Ollie Matson. Right,fully so many of them were skeptical about the white guys in the front offices and coaching staffs. I was what they called a ‘race guy’ who viewed everyone equally, and when guys would see that B liked me, it broke a lot of ice for me. I will never forget him.”
Al and I both shed a tear at this point, agreed to speak soon, and went about our business.
When I was seven years old (in 1960), the AFL came to Los Angeles with the Chargers, coached by the legendary and innovative Sid Gillman. Dad and Sid were friends, and Sid was known by the black players as one of ‘the good guys’. When he was in college, Dad had aspirations of being a football player in his youth, but a broken collarbone derailed those plans. A singer was born; but his love of the game, its characters, and their talents never left him.
In the pre-integration days of Black College football, he loved to visit his friend, Eddie Robinson at Grambling. He’d go to practice, reach out to his friends, Carroll Rosenbloom (who was then the owner of the Baltimore Colts) and Sid Gillman, regaling them with tales of a kid he’d seen at Prairie View and how they’d better get there tired asses down there to see these kids who could run like they’d just stole something and could catch a pass in a hurricane.
Al Davis was on Gillman’s coaching staff with the LA Chargers — where the vaunted vertical offense was developed — along with another future Hall of Famer, Chuck Noll, the coach of the great Pittsburgh Steeler teams of the 70’s.
When Al left to take over the Raiders another phase of his relationship with Dad began, rooted in the competition of two men and their football teams. Dad had standing invites from both Gillman and Mr. D. He was issued a gold pass from both teams for entry to any stadium where they were playing. It was assumed that he’d sing the national anthem when there. Pretty cool, obviously, but the Chargers and the Raiders played each other twice a year; therein the trouble began.
Al took to calling Dad the Raiders “designated singer” and having him introduced at Oakland Stadium as “the World’s greatest Raider fan” just to piss Sid off. Sid would have Dad escorted to his box in San Diego by security, just so he couldn’t sneak over to the Raider side of the field and see some of his Raider pals. Pops, of course, knowing a good opportunity to rib his pals, always made a point of being a front runner, threatening to only support the team that was doing better in the standings.
My brother Guy and I attended many of those games in both cities. Usually watching the games from the sidelines, which really wasn’t all that sexy when you were a small eight or 11-year-old trying to watch the game with 6′ 6″ Ernie Ladd standing in front of you. Not long ago on ESPN Classics, we were watching a replay of Raiders vs. Dolphin game and there we were in all of our afroed glory standing on the Raider sidelines with Pops.
Mr. Davis always laced us with Raider gear before it was fashionable, just so we wouldn’t wear Rams (Rosenbloom owned the team by then) or Charger swag. If Pops was playing a gig in San Francisco, Tahoe, or Reno, you could bet Mr. Davis and some of his Raider posse, Jim Otto, Willie Brown, Art Powell, Jack Tatum, or George Atkinson would be front and center.
MARLON JACKSON THE KING OF POP & THE AUTHOR
When the Raiders moved to LA, Mr. Davis’ assistant, Fudgie, called to tell us that four seats had been put aside for us at the Coliseum on the 50 yard line, 30 rows up. Perfection. We kept those seats the entire time they were in LA.
When I called to say thanks, where can I send a check, he relayed the message: “send it to your old man. I know he is gonna bet against us at some point this year and lose his ass.”
The last time I spoke with him was a memorable day in Raider nation. It was the day in 2005 they signed Randy Moss. The phone rang and it was Fudgie, telling me to hold for Mr. Davis. I thought what could this be about?
“Eddie. How are you, kid? I’m just calling to see how those broken hands of yours are healing. Are you doing okay?”
Mr. Davis, my hands are fine. Where did you hear that they were broken?
“I didn’t have to hear it, you SOB. I haven’t heard from you so I just assumed it.”
We laughed, shared pleasantries, talked about the Moss signing. I respectfully avoided talking about how depressing things were becoming in Raiderland and then he told me he had an idea. “You still in the music business?”
Sort of, I’m no longer at Polygram and I decided to take a break to be with my family and figure out what to do next in my life.
He continued, “you know, we have about a dozen Raider stores across the state of California. I‘d like to sell some music in them. These kids today don’t know all the greats like your Dad, Sarah, Ella, Billie, Dinah and Steve and Eydie. I can’t find Eydie’s version of “If He Walked Into My Life’ anywhere — so shit, I am going to put it out myself. I figure we’ll press up some CDs put the Raider logo on them and start selling them in our stores. What do you think?”
Knowing that it wasn’t as easy as that, what with copyright and master ownership issues — this stuff had to be licensed — I was quickly mulling how to respond. “Well, Mr. D, my first response is really creative. I love my Pops and the other music. I appreciate your desire to carry their contributions forward. Honestly, you’d sell a lot more music if you chose metal and hip hop; that’s who your fan base is. I bet we could put together some only-for-this-project collaborations cause there are a lot of Raider fans in the artist community. I know you love Kay Starr, but honestly your fans don’t give a shit about her. As far as the notion of putting together some CDs, slapping the logo on them, and selling them in you stores, I was thinking of doing the exact same thing. I was going to get some tee shirts put the Raider logo on them and start selling them out of the back of my car. I don’t need to license it right? You’d be okay with that, huh?”
He thought about it for a second, and in that inimitable voice said, “Oh, so you’re a fucking wise guy, just like your Dad. God, I wish your Dad was here so we could talk about this Moss kid, I really miss him.”
God rest you Mr. D, just like Pops they tossed the mold when they made you.