Pianist and singer Billy Stewart was a distinctive and influential R&B vocalist whose stuttering delivery and word-repetition technique borrowed liberally from the jazz practice of scat singing. Born in Washington, D.C., in 1937, Stewart started singing publicly with his mother's group, the Stewart Gospel Singers, as a teenager. He moved into secular music by filling in occasionally for the Rainbows, a D.C.-area vocal group led by future soul star Don Covay; like fellow Rainbows substitute Marvin Gaye, Stewart never recorded with them. Despite winning a local talent contest with a unique rendition of Gershwin's "Summertime," Stewart was first discovered as a pianist, not a singer -- while passing through on a tour, Bo Diddley heard him playing backstage and offered him a job as a backing musician. Thanks to his connection with Diddley, Stewart cut his first solo single, "Billy's Blues," for Chess in 1956. He moved to Okeh in 1957 and recorded "Billy's Heartache" backed by the Marquees, another D.C.-area group featuring Gaye.
Stewart would not return to his solo career until 1962, when he returned to Chess and cut a song called "Fat Boy," a nickname he'd acquired for straightforward reasons. He scored his first charting single on the R&B side with "Reap What You Sow," recorded at the same session, and began to hit his creative stride with the warm "Strange Feeling" in 1963. The following year's "Count Me Out" was only a regional hit, but Stewart broke through in 1965 with two lovely R&B ballad hits, "I Do Love You" (which became the title track of his first album) and "Sitting in the Park." Stewart toured heavily behind those two successes, and also charted the following year with "How Nice It Is" and "Because I Love You." Later in 1966, he returned to the Chess studio to cut an album of jazz and pop standards, Unbelievable. Stewart's unique vocal stylings were in full flower, earning him the new nickname "Motormouth," and his revisitation of "Summertime" landed in the Top Ten on both the pop and R&B charts; it still ranks among the more radical reinterpretations of the oft-recorded warhorse. A waxing of Doris Day's "Secret Love" just missed the R&B Top Ten. However, the hits subsequently dried up, and Stewart's weight problem had worsened into diabetes. In 1969, he suffered minor injuries in a motorcycle accident, but the real tragedy struck on January 17, 1970, when the car Stewart was driving went off the road and plunged into the Neuse River in North Carolina, killing Stewart and the three bandmembers riding with him. He was not quite 33. ~ Steve Huey
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