This year marks 51 years since the untimely death of R&B legend and a Beach Music legend Billy Stewart. Billy was born in Washington D.C. in 1937 and at 12 years of age, he began singing with his brothers Johnny, James, and Frank as a group called The Four Stewart Brothers. The Four Stewart Brothers would eventually get their own radio show. Their show would air for 5 years playing Gospel Music on Sundays on WUST AM in the Washington D.C. area.
Billy would make a move to secular music when he would fill in occasionally with a group in the D.C. area called The Rainbows. The Rainbows were led by future R&B star, Don Covay. Interestingly, it was through The Rainbows that Billy met another aspiring singer named Marvin Gaye! Also during this time, Billy would be discovered and mentored by Bo Diddley. Diddley is credited with discovering Billy playing piano in the D.C. area and eventually inviting Billy to be one of his backing musicians.
Stewart’s meeting of Bo Diddley led to Billy landing a recording contract in 1955 with Chess Records which Diddley owned. Diddley even played guitar on Billy’s 1956 recording of “Billy’s Blues”. In the 1960’s, Billy saw chart success at Chess with songs “Fat Boy”, Reap What You Sow”, and “Strange Feeling”. Billy saw his biggest chart successes beginning in 1965 with “I Do Love You” and “Sitting In The Park”. Billy’s idiosyncratic style, doubling his words while scatting them, and trilling his lips made him a one of a kind talent in the 1960’s.
In 1966, Billy recorded the “Unbelievable” album. The first single released from that album was “Summertime”. “Summertime” was a unique interpretation of the famous George Gershwin song. Billy had performed this song when he was a teenager while competing in talent shows and the song ended up becoming his most successful crossover songs as it landed in the Top 10 of the Pop Charts. As the 1960’s drew to a close, Billy wrote more music and continued to tour. However, he never saw the chart successes as he had just a few years prior.
Billy and his band were continuing to tour at the close of the 1960’s and into the early part of 1970. Billy and his band were on their way to Columbia, South Carolina in January of 1970 when his Ford Thunderbird struck a bridge abutment causing his car to plunge into the Neuse River near Smithfield, North Carolina. Billy Stewart and his band mates Norman Rich, William Cathey, and Rico Hightower all perished in the accident on January 17, 1970.
PBS stations across the country have been airing a great documentary this winter on the 50th anniversary of Billy’s death. The documentary is called Fat Boy: The Billy Stewart Story and was directed by Emmy Award winning documentary filmmaker Beverly Lindsay-Johnson. The documentary will take you in depth on Billy’s life, career, and untimely death. It’s definitely a must watch for any Beach Music fan!