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Eccentric But Talented SingerCopyright © 2001The Scotsman, 2001
Al Hibbler was best known for the eight years he spent with the Duke Ellington Orchestra (1943-51), although his presence there often seemed an anomalous one. His style, with its broad, fast vibrato and propensity for curious vocal effects and odd accents, verged on novelty at times, and was always a little eccentric, but Ellington clearly liked what he called the tonal pantomime inherent in the singers approach.
Albert Hibbler was born blind, and did not attend school until he was in his mid-teens, when he went to Arkansas School for the Blind. He was soprano in the school choir, but his voice had dropped to his more familiar baritone by the end of his teens. He became a blues singer, working in bars in Texas and Arkansas.
He sang one night with Ellington early in 1942, and was well received by the audience. He celebrated by getting drunk, only to be told by the band leader that he was not yet ready to join his group. Hibbler reported that Ellington told him that while he was ready to handle a blind man in the band, he was not ready for a blind drunk.
Instead, the singer spent 18 months working with pianist Jay McShann, then finally did join the Ellington Orchestra in 1943. His principal feature in the bands book was Do Nothin' Til You Hear From Me, written specially for him. It became a popular hit for Duke. Hibbler remained with the band for eight years, working his bizarre vocal pyrotechnics on a range of material, from songs like Im Just A Lucky So and So and The Very Thought of You to such unlikely additions to the Ellington roster as Danny Boy.
He eventually fell out with the band leader over a rise in salary, and left to concentrate on his solo career. He scored a major hit in 1955 with his version of Alex Norths Unchained Melody, and followed it the next year with another hit, After the Lights Go Down Low.
He made his living singing a mixture of raw blues, sentimental songs and jazz standards, all delivered in his inimitable style. He became involved with the Civil Rights movement, and was twice arrested on protest marches, in 1959 and 1963. His career suffered as a consequence, although he did record an album for Frank Sinatras Reprise Records.
He performed at Louis Armstrongs funeral in 1971, and added another unexpected collaboration when he worked with the blind multi-instrumental Rahsaan Roland Kirk on the album A Meeting of the Times in 1972. He recorded and performed occasionally in the 1980s, but his public appearances became less and less frequent.
He is survived by a sister, Christine Noland, and a brother, Hubert Hibbler.