Before Sam Cooke, before Clyde McPhatter, before Ray Charles and before Earl Coleman there was Al Hibbler. Blind from birth, Hibbler began his recording career in 1942 with Jay McShann's band, when Charlie Parker was in the reed section. Then in 1943, he joined Duke Ellington, a tenure that lasted until 1950. A dispute with Ellington over compensation led to Hibbler's departure and the start of a successful solo recording career that lasted until the end of the decade. Today, Hibbler remains one of the greats—not just for what he did with his voice but also for what he didn't do. [Pictured at top: Al Hibbler in 1951]
Over the years, music writers have struggled to characterize Hibbler's unusual vocal style. Many scribes have quibbled over whether Hibbler was a jazz singer or a pop crooner—or a bridge between pop and R&B. I'd argue that all of these labels miss the mark. In truth, Hibbler is the first pure soul singer—if we define soul as the relaxed, heart-felt adaptation of songs flavored by intimacy and seduction. Contemporary Billy Eckstine tended to deliver songs comparatively straight. Herb Jeffries, too.
What made Hibbler special, in both the 78-rpm era and the LP era that followed, was how he served up song lyrics. Unencumbered by what he saw when performing or recording, Hibbler was able to kick back and relate songs in a natural style that varied from tongue-in-cheek conversational to polished bel canto.
Rather than use his baritone voice to sing songs earnestly or romantically, Hibbler often added humor and a fey touch that were enormously engaging. His interpretive style assumed listeners already knew the lyrics to these songs, allowing him to feel comfortable dropping in a syncopated stutter between lyrics or using feigned sweetness when delivering words.
For example, Hibbler could come off of a full-tilt belt to pronounce the word "you" as "yew" or "so" as "sew"—a faux English accent employed in jest to reconnect with average listeners following an exhibition of his powerful technique. Such personalized insertions became a trademark for Hibbler, and listeners eagerly awaited them.
In this regard songs were like a yo-yo in his hands. You knew there was going to be enormous dexterity when Hibbler took on a song. But you also assumed there would be a vocal "walking the dog" or two. In addition to his basso delivery, Hibbler's voice flickered with a full vibrato, and he enjoyed adding an "uh-uh" between lyrics—either to give a song a street informality or to fill the space creatively.
In the late 1950s and into the '60s, Hibbler became active in the civil rights movement and was arrested twice at protests. His last recording was in 1984 (New Jersey Jazz Festival). Hibbler died in 2001 at age 85.
In many respects, you can't fully understand Ray Charles or any other soul vocalist who followed without first listening at length to Al Hibbler and how he phrased songs and made them soulfully his own.
JazzWax tracks: All of Al Hibbler's discography is choice. But here are a handful of starter suggestions:
- The Chronological Al Hibbler: 1946-1949 (French Classics)
- The Chronological Al Hibbler: 1950-1952 (French Classics)
- Starring Al Hibbler (Decca)
- Here's Hibbler (Decca)
- After the Lights Go Down Low (Decca)
- Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Al Hibbler: A Meeting of the Times (Atlantic)
JazzWax clip: Here's one of Al Hibbler's biggest hits, After the Lights Go Down Low. Dig how he moves behind and ahead of the beat. And catch the phrasing and soulful conversational style...
Here's Al Hibbler with saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk on Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me, recorded in March 1972. This also is a spectacular outing for pianist Hank Jones...