Sunday, July 3, 2016

June Eckstine: Lady With a Pipe?

When I was last in my hometown of Pittsburgh, on my way to meet the fabulous Theresa Nightingale of Pittsburgh NORML, I happened upon a State Historical Marker commemorating the birthplace of jazz great Billy Eckstine. Looking him up, I may have found another Tokin' Woman, or just a woman who was repeatedly harassed over marijuana: his first wife June.  

Billy Eckstine won a talent contest by imitating Cab Calloway (he of "Reefer Man" fame), and became a popular and accomplished singer. In he 1944 formed his own big band, which "became the finishing school for adventurous young musicians who would shape the future of jazz." (Wikipedia) Included in this group were Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Charley Parker and Tokin' Woman Sarah Vaughan. Davis claimed in his autobiography that Eckstine supplied the band with cocaine.

Eckstine was a snappy dresser who later had a clothing line, and a bevy of female admirers dubbed "Billysoxers." He and June were married in 1942. She sang with the band and was described as "glamorous" and "sultry." The couple were frequently photographed together for lifestyle pieces.

According to the book Mr. B: The Music and Life of Billy Eckstine by Cary Ginell, both Billy and June had run-ins with the law over marijuana in 1947, just after the band had an altercation with a racist audience member (for which Frank Sinatra wrote Eckstine a note of congratulations). Billy was at a party with a Honolulu-born dancer named Louise Luise at the apartment of "Chicago playboy" Jimmy Holmes when the place was raided. Holmes had 183 "reefer cigarettes" and Eckstine was caught with a .45-caliber revolver. The headlines read, "Maestro-Crooner Arrested with Pretty Sweetheart in 'Weed' Den." Eckstine's lawyer claimed his client had found the gun in a wastebasket and that he was unaware of the marijuana. His charges were quickly dropped.

June "was the target of the more salacious accusation of sodomy" at a "weed party" in Ardmore, Pennsylvania later that year, Ginell's book claims, putting her age at 25 at the time. An 18-year-old girl from Bryn Mawr reportedly said June "persuaded her to ingest marijuana and then raped her." June vehemently denied both accusations, claiming she'd been framed. A grand jury cleared her of the charges and the case never went to trial, but not before sensationalist headlines screamed that June had been arrested for "dope and unnatural acts."

In March of that same year, Tokin' Woman Anita O'Day was arrested for pot after two undercover policeman came to her home during a party at which Gillespie was playing from the branches of a tree in their front yard.

June was photographed smoking one of Billy's pipes shortly after they divorced in 1952 (above), and targeted soon afterwards for a second marijuana arrest. "Singer June Eckstine, the attractive 27-year-old former wife of crooner Billy Eckstine, was arrested in her plush Hollywood apartment with three white friends and booked on a charge of possession of narcotics," said  a Jet magazine item on July 29, 1954. Charges were later dismissed against June for insufficient evidence, but Roberta Kahl, described as "a 34-year-old blonde model" who had a joint in her purse on June's bedside table, was held for trial.

June had a small speaking role in the  movie "Carmen Jones" with Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte in 1954. She later became a successful realtor in Los Angeles, finding homes for the likes of Lou Rawls, Muhammad Ali, and Sammy Davis, Jr. and dating people like John Garfield.

No comments: