HIBBLER: Sang with Ellington.
Albert George Hibbler was born in Tyro, Miss., on Aug. 16, 1915, but many sources list the singer’s birthplace as Little Rock.
His parents were sharecroppers. Born blind, he didn’t go to school until he was 14. That was when the family moved to Little Rock so Hibbler could attend the Arkansas School for the Blind.
Hibbler honed a rich, enunciated singing style in the blind school’s choirs and when he was given permission to play the records of a downtown Little Rock department store. He has said he was a blues singer before he was a pop singer, but his smooth urbane style is scarcely bluesy. He said he wanted to sound like the white vocalists, and he preferred sophisticated pop and smooth crooners of the 1930s over the often noisy sounds — and audiences — of blues. Hibbler first heard Duke Ellington as a teen-ager and said he immediately knew he wanted to join that band.
Ellington played Little Rock’s Ninth Street, the epicenter of entertainment and commerce of the capitol city’s black community, in 1935. According to Hibbler, an audition was arranged with the band, and he brought down the house singing “Accent on Youth,” which Ellington had previously recorded. The bandleader agreed to take him on the road — before Hibbler¹s inebriated celebration gave Ellington pause.
Bill Jones is a Little Rock author who accompanied Hibbler on his visits to the city in the 1990s. “Duke Ellington said, ‘I can handle a drunk man; I can handle a blind man. But a drunk, blind man, I just can’t see,’ ” Jones said.
From 1936 to 1938, Hibbler had a weekly program on KGHI in Little Rock, and he began singing with bands in Memphis and elsewhere. A nice break came when Hibbler got a job with Jumpin’ Jay McShann’s Band, supposedly on the advice of Charlie “Bird” Parker, who was in McShann’s sax section. The band also employed vocalist Jimmy Witherspoon of Gurdon (Clark County) for a time.
Hibbler recorded with McShann in 1943. But soon after, Ellington decided Hibbler had finally matured enough to join his group, generally considered the finest in the land. From 1943 to 1951, Hibbler was lead vocalist in Ellington’s band — both solidified their reputations, especially with the classic “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.”
In 1955, Hibbler signed with Decca as a solo artist. He was produced by Milt Gabler, the longtime producer of R&B pioneer Louis Jordan of Brinkley in the 1940s. Gabler used Jordan’s framework and sound to create early rock records with Bill Haley and the Comets. The label wanted to record Hibbler in a bluesy style. Hibbler, with his swooping baritone voice, wanted strings and a refined sound. Gabler sided with Hibbler; they recorded a song from an upcoming Hollywood movie called “Unchained.” The song was intended as a B-side, but “Unchained Melody” hit No. 3 on the pop charts in 1955.
“Unchained Melody” became Hibbler’s signature song. It’s since become an evergreen recorded by dozens of different types of artists.
Hibbler had other solo hits, and recorded with others such as Rashsaan Roland Kirk, but it’s likely “Unchained Melody” and his near-decade with Ellington will emerge as Hibbler’s most obvious legacies. He became active in the civil rights movement in the late 1950s through the ’60s, and he continued to perform and record until his April 24, 2001, death.
• “Unchained Melody”
• “All or Nothing at All”
• “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”