Vandaag is het al vijftig jaar geleden dat de Amerikaanse soulzanger Billy Stewart om het leven is gekomen, niet zo heel lang na de hit waarmee hij hier bij ons vooral bekend is geworden: “Summertime” (in 1966).
William Larry Stewart II 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.
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 also through The Rainbows that Stewart met another aspiring singer, Marvin Gaye. It is however rock’n’roller Bo Diddley who has been credited with discovering Stewart playing piano in Washington, D.C. in 1956 and inviting him to be one of his backup musicians.
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”. 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 1966, Stewart recorded the LP Unbelievable. The first single released from that album was Stewart’s radical interpretation of the George Gershwin song, “Summertime”. The follow-up single was Stewart’s cover version of the Doris Day hit “Secret Love”.
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.
Stewart 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. Stewart’s 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.
Sarah Stewart, the executrix of Billy’s estate, sued Ford Motor Company, claiming mechanical failure was the cause of the accident. The first trial was won by the 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 eventually settled out of court. (Wikipedia)