Obituary: Arthur Prysock

In the early 1950s, many Americans thought that Arthur Prysock's soothing baritone might match Billy Eckstine's in popularity, but the rock'n'roll era effectively crushed both careers. Despite many satisfying records, Prysock never fulfilled his potential and, in particular, his work is little known in the United Kingdom.

He was born in 1929 in Spartanburg, South Carolina. His brother, Wilbert, born three years earlier, learnt many instruments whilst on military service in the Second World War and later established himself as the saxophonist Red Prysock. Arthur also left home during the war years and worked repairing cars in Hertford, Connecticut. However, he soon discovered his vocal talent and began to rehearse with a pianist. He left his regular employment when a club-owner offered him $3 a night.

In 1945, Buddy Johnson and his Walk 'Em Rhythm Orchestra visited Connecticut, but their resident male vocalist was sick. Johnson heard Prysock sing and immediately offered him a job. He was a member of the band for eight years, singing on several of their successful records for the US Decca label - "They Say I'm The Biggest Fool" (1945), "Jet My Love" (1947), "I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone" (1948) and "Because" (1950).

When Johnson left Decca in 1952, Prysock remained as a solo artist. As a nod to his old friend, Johnson's greatest composition, the searing ballad "Since I Fell For You", was always part of his repertoire. His new career began well as he reached No 5 on the rhythm and blues charts with "I Didn't Sleep a Wink Last Night". But he never did as well again. His versions of "It's No Sin" and "Wheel of Fortune" were released in the UK, but the spoils went elsewhere.

By going solo, Prysock hoped to challenge Billy Eckstine as the leading black ballad singer of the day. Like Eckstine, he possessed a commanding baritone but he failed to establish his own individuality through new, well-crafted material. Eckstine was sophisticated, while one of Prysock's singles was called "Oho-Oh-Yeh!" Indeed he sometimes covered Eckstine's hits, which was scarcely a wise move. Nevertheless, readers of the Pittsburgh Courier voted him the Best Male Singer of 1953 ahead of such luminaries as Nat "King" Cole and Johnnie Ray.

Although Prysock recorded "Good Rockin' Tonight" and "I Just Want To Make Love To You", he did not want to change his style to fall in with the popularity of rock'n'roll music. On the other hand, his brother, Red, recorded a classic, honking sax album Rock'n'Roll. From time to time, he worked with Red in shows billed as "The Sax and the Voice".

Prysock still had his moments and a revival of the standard "The Very Thought of You" was reasonably successful in 1960, as was "I Worry About You" two years later. He moved to Old Town Records and recorded several romantic albums, including Arthur Prysock Sings Only For You (1961), Coast To Coast (1962), Everlasting Songs for Everlasting Lovers and Intimately Yours (both 1964).

In 1964, Prysock signed with the famed jazz label Verve, and made the best records of his career including Art and Soul (1966), I Must Be Doing Something Right and This Is My Beloved (both 1968). During this period, he also appeared at Carnegie Hall and hosted his own television show. He was teamed with Count Basie, notably for the album Arthur Prysock/Count Basie (1965), which featured seven saxophonists, but Basie does not even mention Prysock in his autobiography.

Prysock's deep voice was well suited to commercials and his series for Lowenbrau beer was well-known in America. He also made the charts with a narration, "A Working Man's Prayer" (1968), written by the country singer Ed Bruce. As with many black vocalists, Prysock made a country album: Today, I Started Loving You Again (1979).

By the 1970s, Prysock was playing cabaret and club engagements around America. In 1976, prompted by his 14-year-old daughter Janine's enthusiasm for the film Saturday Night Fever, he cut a disco album with Billy Paul's producer, John Davis, and the Monster Orchestra called When Love Is New. The title track was a Top Ten R&B single and was followed by "I Wantcha Baby" and "You Can Do It".

He returned to cabaret work, and subsequently received critical acclaim for two albums that were more in keeping with his personality, A Rockin' Good Way (1985) and This Guy's In Love With You (1986).

Arthur Prysock has left a legacy of around 500 recordings. Very few have been released on CD - nothing in the UK - and those that have are usually on compilation albums. They are waiting to be rediscovered. The first moves were made by Michael Parkinson in his Sunday Supplement on BBC Radio 2. He has been featuring Prysock in past months and no doubt record buyers are looking for his work in the stores. If a complete collection were to be reissued, it could be filed variously under Jazz, Blues, Easy Listening and even Country with CDs also being filed in the pockets for Count Basie and Buddy Johnson.

Spencer Leigh

Arthur Prysock, singer: born Spartanburg, South Carolina 2 January 1929; died Hamilton, Bermuda 21 June 1997.

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