Remembering Al Hibbler©2004JCMarion


Albert Hibbler was born in August of 1915 in the little town of Tyro, Mississippi. In 1927 his family moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, and Hibbler who had been born blind studied music at the Conservatory for the Blind in that city and sang with his church choir. He first vocalized with local territory bands in Arkansas and Oklahoma such as Dub Jenkins. In 1942 he won a talent contest in Memphis, and was asked to join the band of Kansas City pianist Jay McShann which included future jazz legend Charlie Parker. His first record was with McShann with the tune "Get Me On Your Mind" for Decca Records. Developing his style paid off as one year later he was invited to replace Herb Jeffries as vocalist with the orchestra of Duke Ellington. He was with the Ellington band for eight years and recorded vocals with them for Musicraft, RCA Victor, and Columbia. His most famous vocal with Ellington was "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" on Columbia #38464. In 1947 he won the Esquire New Star Award, and Best band Vocalist for Downbeat in 1949. Hibbler was a featured vocalist with the Ellington band for their Carnegie Hall concerts in 1944, 1946, and 1947, which survive today on live recordings. Hibbler made a number of recordings for the Sunrise and Miracle labels in the late n nineteen forties. Some of them were : "Trees" and "Lover Come Back To Me" on Miracle #501, "Poor Butterfly" on Sunrise # 503, "Hey Baby" and "I Love You" with Ben Webster on Sunrise # 515, "Ghost Of Love" and "By The River St. Marie" on Sunrise #520, "Fat 'n Forty" and "Little Brown Book" on Sunrise #2001, "Solitude" and "Feather Roll Blues" on Sunrise #2002, and "Summertime" and "My Everloving Baby" with Mercer Ellington's Orchestra on Sunrise #2007.

In February of 1950, Al with the Duke pair off on an interesting double bill with The Orioles at Chicago's Opera House. In March Al's vocal of "The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise" is released on Columbia #30195. While the Ellington orchestra is on a European tour, Hibbler stays behind and gives solo vocals a shot. In May Al appears with Oran "Hot Lips" Page and The Striders at Teddy Powell's Holiday Inn in Newark, New Jersey. That same month Al is signed to Atlantic Records as a solo vocalist. Soon Atlantic releases "Danny Boy" and "Song Of The Wanderer" by Hibbler with the Billy Kyle Orchestra on #911. By July the record shows strength on the West coast, especially in San Francisco. By August it is selling well in the New York area. In September while the Ellington band is at New York's Paramount Theater, Hibbler is appearing at Birdland in that city. In November "The Blues Came Falling Down" / "Old Folks" with the Billy Taylor orchestra is released by Atlantic on #925. Al also vocalizes on "White Christmas" with Ellington on Duke's own label Mercer Records.

In February of 1951 Chess records of Chicago purchases a number of master recordings by Al Hibbler that were recorded for the New York label Sunrise Records. That same month the tunes "Stormy Weather" and "Cherry" are released on Mercer # 1957 as by The Ellingtonians featuring Al Hibbler. In March Chess Records announces that Al; Hibbler & his Orchestra are on Chess Records. The first Chess release is "What Will I Tell My Heart" and "Don't Mean A Thing" on #1455. The ads also tell the public that his recordings of "Trees" and "Sunrise" are also now available on Chess. At the same time Atlantic is still advertising Hibbler's recording of "Danny Boy". The Hibbler recording of "What Will I Tell My Heart" starts to sell in the Chicago area, and by April is selling well in Los Angeles. In May "Stardust" and "Honeysuckle Rose" are released on Mercer #1965. In August "Now I lay Me Down To Dream" and "This Is Always" recorded with the band of Jimmy Mundy is released on Atlantic #945. In September Hibbler supposedly has a disagreement with Ellington over his salary, which causes him to quit the band and go out on his own as a solo performer. In November comes another Chess Records release - "I Love You" and "My Little Brown Book" on #1481. Al closes out the year with an extended engagement at The Frolics, a night spot in Boston.

For the next three years or so, Al Hibbler records sporadically for a number of labels and in a number of settings. He also makes a number of personal appearances throughout the country in urban night spots and in concert at a number of different venues. In July of 1952, jazz producer Norman Granz signs Hibbler to Mercury and plans to record him with a combo led by ex-Ellington alto sax star Johnny Hodges. Mercury releases "Believe It Beloved" and "Please" on #89011. Another session with Hodges produces "Hodge Podge" , and on still another he does vocals on the songs "I Got It Bad And That Ain't Good" and "This Love of Mine". He records with a jazz combo led by Leroy Lovett for Norman Granz on such tunes as "I'm A Lucky So And So" and "Every Hour On The Hour". In July Hibbler appears at the third annual Blues Jubilee at Los Angeles Shrine Auditorium which was produced by Gene Norman. Also on stage were T-Bone Walker, Joe Houston, Helen Humes, Peppermint Harris, Jimmy Witherspoon, and many others. The Count Basie Orchestra backs up Hibbler for a Mercury recording on #89028. The songs are "Sent For You Yesterday" and "Going To Chicago" In June of 1953, Hibbler plays the Bill & Lou Club in Philadelphia. In October Al plays the Toast Of The Town Club in Chicago. In May of 1954 the Chess re-releases of earlier material continues with "Fat 'n Forty" and "Poor Butterfly" on #1569. Mercury releases "There Is No Greater Love" and "It Must Be True" on #89046. In June, Hibbler appears at the El Dorado night club in Houston, Texas. Late in 1954 it is announced that Al Hibbler has signed a new recording contract with another new label, this time it is Decca Records.

Despite the news of the Decca signing, the first Al Hibbler record release of the year 1955 during the month of January is on Original #1006 with the tunes "After The Lights Go Down Low" and "Tell Me". Leroy Lovett whom Hibbler recorded with for Norman Granz on Clef Records, wrote the song and owned the master recording which he sold to Original Records. The record does not sell and soon Hibbler's debut is about to happen. In March Decca releases "Unchained Melody" from the film "Unchained" and "Daybreak" on #29441, and that same month Hibbler shares the stage at the Apollo Theater in New York with Sarah Vaughn. Hibbler then moves to a week at Detroit's Crystal Lounge and then on to Buffalo, New York at the Copa Casino. "Unchained Melody" becomes a huge seller across the country, even with a great selling version by Roy Hamilton for Epic, and a number one selling pop instrumental version by Les Baxter for Capitol. Both vocal versions seem to be selling neck and neck in all areas on both the R & B and pop charts. The Hibbler version gets as high as number three in the national best sellers pop charts and remains on the list for five months. In April Hibbler has a featured spot on the Steve Allen television show. The following month Alan Freed has Al as a headliner for a week at the State Theater in Boston. Also on the show are Dinah Washington, Dakota Staton, Little Walter, The Moonglows, Five Keys, nappy Brown, and Bo Diddley. In June Hibbler opens at New York's Birdland and Original Records plans to release "Autumn Winds". The "Pop R & B Show" which headlines Al Hibbler, along with Sarah Vaughn, Red Prysock, The Cardinals, and many others, will tour the South through July and most of August. Decca releases "I Can't Put My Arms Around You" and "They Say You're laughing At Me" on #29543. The record is swamped by the continuing success of "Melody". Because of the huge success of "Unchained Melody" Atlantic Records re-issues their Hibbler recording of "Danny Boy" and "Now I Lay Me Down To Dream" on #1071 in August. That month Chess Records also plans to re-issue some old sides by Al Hibbler, this time in an LP album. In September, Alan Freed sets an all time attendance record at the Brooklyn Paramount. Al Hibbler steps in to take the place of Tony Bennett ( ! ) who strained his vocal chords ( ! ) two days into the weeklong engagement. After the Freed show Hibbler heads for the Copa Casino in Youngstown, Ohio, and then joins LaVern Baker, The ElDorados, and Red Prysock, for shows at the Howard in D.C., and the Royal in Baltimore. In October Hibbler has another huge seller with "He" on Decca #29660 which has a five and one half month stay on the pop charts and gets to number four in the country (the flip side is "Breeze Blow My Baby Back To Me").

Al begins the new year of 1956 with a series of all star shows on the West coast. In February the song "Eleventh Hour Melody" is a solid seller for Hibbler. The Decca release on #29789 coupled with "Let's Try Again" is a top twenty charter. In March Hibbler headlines at Chicago's Regal Theater where the show also features Della Reese, The Orioles, and Eddie Heywood's Orchestra. In June Hibbler signs on for a big traveling R & B show produced by Irvin Feld to tour Canada, Maryland, the Midwest, and Texas. Others on the bill are Carl Perkins, Shirley & Lee, Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, Chuck Berry, and others. The show plays to ten thousand in Annapolis and draws an overflow crowd of seventy thousand that totally paralyzes the entire area. This proves the tremendous appeal of the music and its performers (and provides an early echo of Woodstock thirteen years later !). "Never Turn Back" and "Away All Boats" on Decca #29950 is another top twenty seller for Hibbler during the summer. In August Aladdin Records becomes the latest to recycle an old session by Hibbler - "I Got It Bad" and "Don't Take Your Love From Me" on #3328. But it was another old Hibbler record that becomes another huge seller during the summer. A Decca LP album called "Starring Al Hibbler" is a big seller getting to the top 20 in album sales in the country. Al re-records the Leroy Lovett song "After The Lights Go Down Low" for Decca on # 29982 ("I Was Telling Her About You" on the flip), and the humorous rendition complete with exaggerated British accent, goes over well with the record buying public. Alan Freed gives the side a boost on his radio show and the record is a solid top ten seller and spends more than three months on the charts. Unfortunately, this was the last record by Al Hibbler that would make the best sellers, but the Decca label had a number of record releases by the singer planned. One of the first was "Nightfall" and "I'm Free" on #30100. At the end of the year Decca releases the seasonal song "White Christmas" in the Hibbler style on # 30127.

"The Town Crier" shows some promise early in 1957, but is soon swallowed up in the rock 'n roll tidal wave of the year. The record with a new version of the song "Trees" was released on #30176. In March of 1957 Al Hibbler headlines a show for Mickey Schorr at the Michigan Theater in Detroit, then moves on to Philadelphia to the Mastbaum Theater with an all star show which also features Nappy Brown, The Willows, Eddie Cochrane, Bull Moose Jackson, and Gene Vincent & The Blue Caps. Decca then releases Hibbler's version of two well known songs on #30268 - "Because of You" and "Sweet Slumber". The songs "I Complain" and "Around The Corner From The Blues" are coupled on #30337 and is followed by "When Will I Forget You" and "Be Fair" on #30347. In August "My Heart Tells Me" and "I'm Not Young Anymore" are out on Decca #30547. In early 1959 Hibbler does a week at the Apollo Theater in New York, and the Club 802 in Brooklyn. "Love Land" and "Love Me Long" are on Decca #30752. During the summer of 1959 Hibbler plays the Copa Club in Newport, Kentucky, and is well received. The songs "Lonesome and Cold" and "It Won't Be Easy" recorded with the Ray Charles Singers (no connection to the great Atlantic singer) is released on Decca #30946, and like most of his recordings since early 1957, Hibbler does not strike a chord with young record buyers and is soon let go by Decca Records. In the early sixties he records "Strawberry Hill" and "Stranger" for Top Rank, and "Tall The Sky" for Reprise, and then soon fades from the scene. He briefly returns spurred on by the revival of a couple of his past hits by The Righteous Brothers in the late sixties. He appeared now and then performing during the rest of the 1960s, and the last time I saw him perform was at the funeral for Louis Armstrong in July of 1971 where he rendered a heartfelt tribute to that giant of American music. Al Hibbler then lived out the rest of his years until he passed away in April of 2001 in Chicago at the age of 85. He was a wonderful musician and personality, and overcame much adversity in his life to bring pleasure to so many people.

There are a number of CD releases that chronicle the music of Al Hibbler. The place to start is "The Best of . ." on Varese Sarabande from 1998 which includes all the commercial successes from his days with Decca. Some original 1950s vinyl LPs are available on CD format including his hit album "Starring . . ." reissued in 1996 by Jasmine, "After The Lights Go Down Low" originally from 1956 now on a 1991 CD from Atlantic, "Solitude" on Simitar, and "Monday Every Day" on Collectables. Original Jazz Classics has two chronologically indexed CDs that are definitely worthwhile for listeners that want something more than the Decca hits. Vol. 1 "1946 - 1949" includes the recordings from the Aladdin, Sunrise, Miracle, and Chess labels, while Vol.2 "1950 - 1952" includes the Mercer, Clef, and Atlantic sides.

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