Friday, June 27, 2008

Today's oldie: Billy Eckstine's "Ask the Lonely" (on The Complete Motown Singles Vol. 9: 1969). Back in his day, Eckstine was major, one of the top crooners, definitely one of the top African-American crooners, an icon. Rock and roll changed that; soul changed it some more. I won't pretend to know Eckstine's early work in anything more than a cursory way, which is one reason I wasn't expecting to be so moved by this. I think this is on the fourth disc of the '69 Motown box, which I played in order over a couple of days, and aside from a Soupy Sales record mocking "Macarthur Park" this is one I didn't know already that kicked my ass. What's remarkable is how perfect the fit is. The song is Eckstine in tone, mood, even tempo; you could easily hear this as the Four Tops track with a different vocal patched on. But Eckstine's deep, deep timbre communicates a lifetime of hurt; he sounds far more wracked (in part by sounding far more upright) than Levi Stubbs, who was not shy about communicating pain. Especially because Eckstine's nowhere near as big a ham as Stubbs, he worries it with absolute authority. I wonder if he made an album's worth of stuff this good.