Billy StewartWilliam Larry Stewart II (March 24, 1937 – January 17, 1970) was an American rhythm and blues singer and pianist who was popular during the 1960s.
BiographyStewart 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. He was a graduate of Armstrong High School.
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, Stewart began working with A&R man Billy Davis. 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. Stewart suffered minor injuries in a motorcycle accident in 1969.
Health and deathStewart's weight caused him several health problems, culminating in diabetes, a condition that may have contributed to him having a motorcycle accident in 1969.
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, ran along the median strip at a slight angle to the highway, struck the bridge abutment, and then plunged into the river, killing Stewart and his three passengers instantly. The other victims in the accident were members of Stewart's band: Norman P. Rich, 39, of Washington D.C., William Cathey, 32 of Charlotte, N.C., and Rico Hightower, 22 of Newark, New Jersey. The four musicians were driving to a nightclub show in Columbia, South Carolina at the time of the wreck. The car had been purchased only 12 days before and had been driven only 1,400 miles before the accident occurred.
Stewart was buried in National Harmony Memorial Park in Landover, Maryland.
Lawsuit and trialSarah Stewart, the executrix of his estate, sued Ford Motor Company on behalf of his estate, claiming mechanical failure was the cause of the accident. The first trial was won by Ford Motor Company, but on appeal the court ruled that the trial court's refusal to give the requested jury instructions was in error and ordered the case reversed and remanded. The case was then settled out of court.
Musical legacyDuring the late 1970s and early 1980s, his music was popular among Latino, specifically Chicano, youth on the West Coast. Stewart was inducted into the Washington Area Music Association Hall of Fame in 2002.
His version of "Summertime" was one of the songs featured on Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour show, and was one of the few artists Dylan actually responded about during his mainly fictitious email responses to listener questions. His version of "Summertime" was also featured in the last scene and on the soundtrack of the 2003 movie Stuck on You. His musical legacy is also being kept alive by several talented family members in his hometown of Washington D.C. Cousins Grace Ruffin who is a member of the 60’s group The Four Jewels, singer and musician Calvin C. Ruffin Jr. and local Washington, D.C. independent recording artist Dane Riley, continue to perform several of his hits during their concerts.
NRBQ has performed "Sitting In The Park" as a fluctuating part of their set list since 1970. Three versions have been released by NRBQ on cd.
On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Billy Stewart among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.