Happy birthday to Al Hibbler, the uniquely gifted and underrated vocalist and civil rights activist who's career was disturbed by a near-blacklist recording ban due to his arrests in the movement.
Born in Mississippi, he joined a choir at a school for the blind in Little Rock at age 12. He developed his baritone voice and started singing blues in the '30s. In the early '40s he sang in territory bands in the South and Midwest and also with Jay McShann (the same band with young Charlie Parker) where he made his first recorded appearance.
In '43 he joined the Duke Ellington band. "Do Nothin' Til You Hear From Me" was written as a vehicle for Hibbler and it became a pop hit in '44. "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" was another notable one. His stay with Ellington lasted until 1951 and he won several awards during the stint.
In the '50s he sang with Count Basie, Johnny Hodges, Gerald Wilson and others and cut albums for Norgran, Mercury and Decca, where he had a huge hit with "Unchained Melody" in '55. His activism in the Civil Rights and anti-segregation movements (including marching and several arrests) led to a near blacklist from the recording industry.
A symbolic deal with Frank Sinatra's Reprise Records didn't yield much for his career. He sang at Louis Armstrong's funeral and cut a record with another blind original, Rahsaan Roland Kirk (A Meeting Of The Times, 1972). He occasionally appeared in concert but his career mostly was stalled since the '60s.