:: Billy Stewart - Let's Fall In Love ::
:: Billy Stewart - Ol' Man River ::
I love it when I come across an artist whose work simply blows my mind and makes me run out and search for all their music. That’s the reaction I had to ‘60’s R&B singer Billy Stewart, and I’m still not sure how I lived so long without ever hearing him on oldies radio. I picked up The Best of Billy Stewart: The Millennium Collection” when it came out in 2000, and I don’t think a month has gone by since that I haven’t had the need to hear his soul pour out of my speakers.
Thankfully, Bo Diddley discovered Stewart for all of us, playing piano in Washington, D.C. and invited him to be one of his backup musicians. This led to Stewart being signed to Chess in 1957, but it wasn’t until he began working with Chess A&R man Billy Davis in 1962 that the hits started rolling out. Billy Davis, incidentally, went on to become an advertising jingle writer in the 1970’s, bringing us Coke classics, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)” and “Have a Coke and a Smile.” Davis convinced Stewart to focus more on songwriting and to come into the studio and work out songs on a more regular basis.
Stewart hit both the pop and R&B charts in 1965 with two gorgeous ballads, “I Do Love You” and “Sitting in the Park.” On these his vocals are silk, and the songs hold up today as melancholy testimonials that remain sentimental without getting overly sappy. But it’s his distinctive, scat-like vocal style that sets Stewart apart from his contemporaries and makes him truly unique and compelling. Billy had a dynamic improvisational technique of doubling-up and stuttering his words, trilling his lips, and playing with a lyric as if it were a toy in his hands. This is what makes his autobiographical song, “Fat Boy”, and his biggest hit, a radical interpretation of Gershwin’s, “Summertime,” so damn soulful.
Obesity, diabetic health problems, and a motorcycle accident in 1969 contributed to a slowing down of his career momentum. Tragically, the next year, a 32 year-old Stewart and three of his musicians were killed after their car ran off the road and plunged into a North Carolina river. Duke Ellington had seen him perform a short while before and the two were making arrangements to work together prior to the fatal accident, sadly leaving us to wonder what could have been.
There were only three Billy Stewart albums and a handful of singles, all of them now out of print. Until Chess/MCA-Universal decides to either re-release them or put out a proper anthology of all his recordings, I highly recommend a 1988 best-of compilation, “One More Time,” as it includes all the hits and some singles that were never released on LP. These two songs are from his last album, “Billy Stewart Teaches Old Standards New Tricks,” and don’t appear on any of the best-of compilations.