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The Sad Story Of Billy Stewart

August 13, 2020

Several of Stewart's songs are classic beach music tunes that still get a lot of play - "Summertime," "I Do Love You," and "Sitting In The Park." What a great voice.

I was not aware of his knowing Marvin Gaye and Don Covay until I wrote this summary.

William Larry Stewart II (1937 – 1970) was a R&B singer and pianist.

Stewart was 12 years old when he began singing with his younger brothers Johnny, James, and Frank as the Four Stewart Brothers, and later went on to get their own radio show every Sunday for five years at WUST-AM in Washington, D.C.

Stewart made the transition to secular music by filling in occasionally for the Rainbows, a D.C. area vocal group led by the future soul star, Don Covay. It was through the Rainbows that Stewart met another aspiring singer, Marvin Gaye. Rock and roller Bo Diddley has been credited with discovering Stewart playing piano in Washington, D.C. in 1956 and inviting him to be one of his backup musicians.

By 1955, this led to a recording contract with Diddley's label, Chess Records and Diddley played guitar on Stewart's 1956 recording of "Billy's Blues". A strong seller in Los Angeles, "Billy's Blues" reached the sales top 25 in Variety magazine. Stewart then moved to Okeh Records and recorded "Billy's Heartache", backed by the Marquees, another D.C. area group which featured Marvin Gaye.

Back at Chess in the early 1960s, he recorded a song called "Fat Boy" and then had additional success with his recordings of "Reap What You Sow" and "Strange Feeling", both making the Billboard Hot 100 and the Top 30 in the R&B charts.

Major chart success was not far away and in 1965, Stewart recorded two self-written songs, "I Do Love You" (#6 R&B, #26 Pop), which featured his brother Johnny Stewart as one of the backing vocalists with his partner James English, and "Sitting in the Park" (#4 R&B, #24 Pop). His idiosyncratic improvisational technique of doubling-up, scatting his words and trilling his lips made his style unique in the 1960s.

In 1966, Stewart recorded the LP Unbelievable. The first single released from that album was Stewart's radical interpretation of the George Gershwin song, "Summertime", a Top 10 hit on both the pop and R&B charts.

The follow-up single was Stewart's cover version of the Doris Day hit "Secret Love", which reached the Pop Top 30 and just missed the Top 10 on the R&B chart. Stewart continued to record throughout the remainder of the 1960s on Chess without major success. A weight problem worsened, and he developed diabetes.

He died in a broad-daylight car accident in January 1970, just two months prior to his 33rd birthday. The accident happened when the Ford Thunderbird that Stewart was driving approached a bridge across the Neuse River near Smithfield, North Carolina (presumably on Interstate 95). His car left the highway, struck the bridge abutment, and then plunged into the river, killing Stewart and his three passengers. The four musicians were driving to a show in Columbia, SC.

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Good News / Bad News.....

Watched the long version (4:57) video of Billy Stewart singing "Summertime". Despite the fact that there was virtually no synchronization between the audio and the video (separately made obviously), it was still awesome to hear that truly amazing and eclectic mix of different singing/song genres!!! They don't make 'em like that any more....

BAD NEWS -- looking at the video, there was not a single black face that was discernible in the crowd. Would love to know when and where that "performance" took place. The strong hints of a country setting were understandable . . . but seemed a bit off.....

GOOD NEWS -- there was not a single black face in the crowd .…

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