Al Hibbler in 1946
|Birth name||Albert George Hibbler|
|Born||August 16, 1915
Tyro, Mississippi, United States
|Died||April 24, 2001 (aged 85)
Traditional popular music
|Years active||1935 – 2001|
|Associated acts||Duke Ellington|
Al Hibbler (August 16, 1915 - April 24, 2001) was an American vocalist with several pop hits. He is best known for his million-selling recording of "Unchained Melody" (1955). Once described by Duke Ellington as "our major asset", the bandleader was referring to Hibbler's deep-toned, dramatic vocal style, with its heavy vibrato. "You could drive a truck through that vibrato," said one musician. It brought Hibbler and the band considerable popular acclaim. He achieved national prominence in the United States with the Ellington orchestra in the mid 1940s and went on to build a substantial career, which included continuing involvement with jazz musicians.
Born Albert Hibbler in Tyro, Mississippi, he was blind from birth. He was the third of five children of farmers Hubert Hibbler, Sr., and Lucy (Propst) Hibbler, and he added the middle name George as a child because he liked the way it sounded. Hibbler's parents sold their farm in the early 1920s and moved from Mississippi to Dell, Arkansas, to become sharecroppers. The young Hibbler picked cotton and did not attend school until 1929, when he enrolled at the Arkansas School for the Blind in Little Rock, where he sang soprano in the school choir until his voice deepened into a baritone. His early vocal influences were Pha Terrell (of Andy Kirk's band Twelve Clouds of Joy), Arthur "The Street Singer" Tracy, and the popular radio crooners Bing Crosby and Russ Columbo.[4 ]
Hibbler left the Arkansas School for the Blind before graduating and, with financial support from a Little Rock department-store owner, studied voice for two terms at the New England Conservatory in Boston from 1935 to 1936. After returning to Little Rock, he began singing the blues in roadhouses, and his first professional job was with Monroe Fingers and His Yellow Jackets. He hosted his own weekly radio show on KGHI-AM from 1936 to 1938. He then moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where he sang with Dub Jenkins and His Playmates before going to San Antonio, Texas, where he performed with Boots and His Buddies and then formed his own band.[4 ]
Near the end of 1941, Hibbler met the Kansas City based bandleader/pianist Jay McShann and sat in with his band, which included future bebop pioneer Charlie Parker. He joined the band in 1942. "I could tell Hibbler had it, so I wired him to join us in Kansas City," McShann said. By the time the band arrived in New York, Hibbler had displaced McShann's other vocalists, and was to tour with him for the next two years.
He joined Duke Ellington's orchestra in 1943, replacing Herb Jeffries. Whilst some critics found Hibbler's style hard to take, his fans were sufficient in number to bring him the Esquire New Star Award as best male singer in 1947, and the Downbeat award as best band singer in 1948-49. He worked eight years with Ellington before becoming a soloist. His eight years in Ellington's band were the longest tenure of any of the Duke's male vocalists, and Hibbler was featured on such notable songs as "Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me" (written especially for him), "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," and "I'm Just a Lucky So and So." He also made several solo recordings with Mercer Ellington (including the 1948 hit "Trees"), as well as recordings with various Ellington sidemen, such as Billy Kyle, Harry Carney, and Billy Strayhorn, and other jazz greats, such as Billy Taylor.[4 ] Some of his singing is classified as rhythm and blues, but he is best classified as a bridge between R&B and traditional pop music. His idiosyncratic "scoop and swoop" vocal style reached from deep baritone to high tenor, and although he used very precise diction, he often included vibrato, grunts, growls, and a vague cockney accent. Ellington described Hibbler's voice as "tonal pantomime" and clearly appreciated him, paying Hibbler $250 per week and referring to him in a 1973 memoir as "our major asset." Singer Mel Tormé praised Hibbler's vocals on "I Like the Sunrise" (1947; from Ellington's "Liberian Suite") as "one of the gentlest, most moving vocals ever put on wax." Some critics, however, thought Hibbler's singing was exhibitionist: jazz historian Leonard Feather described Hibbler's vocals as "grotesque tonal distortions," and in 1990 the writer Will Friedwald likened Hibbler to how Billy Eckstine "might sound if he were drunk."[4 ]
His biggest hit was his original version of "Unchained Melody" in 1955.[5 ] The record reached #4 in the U.S. Billboard pop chart, and #2 in the UK Singles Chart.[6 ] The success led to network appearances, including a live jazz club remote on NBC's Monitor. Other hits were "He," "11th Hour Melody" and "Never Turn Back" (all in 1956). "After the Lights Go Down Low" (1956) was his last chart hit.
In the late 1950s and 1960s, Hibbler became a civil rights activist, marching with protestors and getting arrested in 1959 in New Jersey and in 1963 in Alabama. In Birmingham, he marched carrying a placard with the inscription, "Equal Opportunity and Human Dignity," and brief footage of his arrest can be seen in the documentary film Eyes on the Prize, episode four, "No Easy Walk" (1986).[4 ] The notoriety of this activism discouraged major record labels from carrying his work, but Frank Sinatra supported him and signed him to a recording contract with his label, Reprise Records. Hibbler sang at Louis Armstrong's funeral in 1971. However, Hibbler made very few recordings after that, occasionally doing live appearances through the 1990s. His last public appearance was at Lincoln Center, in January 1999, with a group of old Ellington alumni, his vibrato still notable as he sang "Time After Time".