Billy Eckstine drove his fans wild. Nicknamed Mr. B, the dashing singer had a voice that was described as a “suave bass-baritone” and a stage presence that, for a time at least, rivaled Frank Sinatra’s. By 1949, Eckstine was a genuine pop sensation—the New York Times reported that he even outsold Sinatra at New York’s Paramount Theatre. So, it was probably no surprise that LIFE came calling.
In the late 1940s, the legendary photo magazine was near the peak of its powers, showing millions of readers a curated vision of postwar prosperity. Photographer Martha Holmes was assigned the task of capturing the magic of the newly minted star. One of the few women who were on the photography staff at LIFE, the Kentucky-born Holmes is featured in New-York Historical Society’s new exhibition, LIFE: Six Women Photographers. On view June 28–Oct. 6, the exhibition features over 70 images from Holmes and five other female photographers, the only women to have been on the magazine’s photography staff for its 36-year run as a weekly. The women crisscrossed the country and the globe, documenting everything from politicians and movie stars to Montana frontier towns to state visits in Moscow. Included in the show is Holmes’ photo essay covering the talented Mr. B, which took on a controversial life of its own.
A native of Pittsburgh, Eckstine honed his chops fronting Earl Hines’ band, before forming his own be-bop band in 1944 that at various points featured such luminaries as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sarah Vaughn. By the late 1940s, Eckstine had embarked on a solo career and was soon shooting up the charts crooning the romantic pop ballads of the day, including hits “Everything I Have is Yours” (listen below) and “Caravan.”
Holmes joined Eckstine, then 35 years old, and his entourage on tour in New York City for a week. Her mission: to capture the high-water glitz and glamour of Eckstine’s career as he made the rounds at trendy restaurants like Sardi’s and theaters like the Paramount, where screaming fans mobbed him after his show. Later in the week, Eckstine was similarly swarmed by a crowd after a performance at the club Bop City, and it was then that Holmes snapped one of her most famous pictures—a joyful, exuberant shot of Eckstine laughing as he is surrounded by ecstatic young women, including one who has her face pressed into his shoulder.
The women were mostly white and Eckstine was multiracial, a fact that made the photo highly subversive in segregated America. Eckstine’s biographer Cary Ginell writes, “It was obvious that for these women, there was no racial barrier at all…. It’s not necessarily a sexual image, but one of pure, innocent, unabashed delight.” Holmes herself later told an interviewer, “That picture was my favorite, because it told just what the world should be like.”
The editors at LIFE were well aware that wasn’t what America was like. But rather than confront that racism head-on, there was hesitation in the halls of the magazine. The stalemate was broken by LIFE founder and Time Inc. head Henry Luce, who sided with Holmes and insisted that the photo run. When the April 24, 1950, issue hit stands, readers found the three-page story inside, entitled “Mr. B: Bobby Soxers Become Billy Soxers to Boost Baritone Billy Eckstine.” It led with the shot of Eckstine and his fans and a caption that read: “Billy is swarmed by admirers. Most profess to have maternal feelings about him. ‘He’s just like a little boy,’ they say.” The nothing-to-see-here text is telling, according to Sarah Gordon, New-York Historical’s co-curator of the LIFE exhibition. “The editors knew how potentially explosive this was,” she says. “This was absolute pop-star hysteria, pre-Elvis, pre-Beatles. But they tried to dial it back with emasculating language that they knew wasn’t true.”
If the caption was ludicrous, it was also a failure. The photo was just too vivid to ignore. But rather than being charmed or impressed by it, more than a few white readers were appalled. LIFE’s internal report on letters to the editor noted that 59 complaints were received about the Eckstine story, expressing vicious, hysterically racist sentiments like, “That picture of Billy Eckstine with a white girl clinging to him after a performance just turns my stomach.” Other readers described the photo as “the most nauseating picture of the year” and “the most indecent picture ever published by LIFE.” The report also notes that eight people cancelled their subscriptions (although, to be fair, readers consistently cancelled their LIFE subscriptions in a huff for various reasons.)
Eckstine’s career plateaued after 1950, and he never again reached such heights. Was it because of the photo? It’s impossible to say for sure, although Ginell believes it was. In Mr. B: The Music and Life of Billy Eckstine, he writes that even though some Black entertainers like Harry Belafonte saw the LIFE story as groundbreaking, “the Eckstine photo came too early to do anything but alienate the still regressive and prejudiced American society.” If pop stardom eventually passed Eckstine by, he continued to work steadily over the decades as a performer and actor on TV and in the movies. He recorded his last album in the 1980s before his death, in 1993, at the age of 78.
As for Holmes, she was a pioneering photographer at LIFE for 40 years. In the course of her career, she took iconic photos of figures like Dwight D. Eisenhower, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackson Pollock, Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall. But when Holmes died in 2006 at age 83, her New York Times obituary noted that her favorite shot was still the same: that long-ago picture of Billy Eckstine showing the way the world should be.
To see this image and more, visit New-York Historical’s exhibition LIFE: Six Women Photographers between June 28 and Oct. 6.
Written by Kerrie Mitchell, content editor