'Unsung hero' of the piano backed Holiday, Eckstine

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Bobby Tucker, a brilliant but little-known pianist who backed Billy Eckstine, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett as well as Billie Holiday and Mildred Bailey, has died. He was 84.

Tucker died April 19 of multiple myeloma in Morristown, N.J.

"Bobby was one of the unsung heroes of the business," said Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers-Newark. "He was a selfless performer who dedicated himself to being a great accompanist and musical director."

Tucker's stay with Eckstine lasted 44 years, up until the pioneering crooner's death in 1993, after which the pianist went into semi-retirement.

His bandstand career began in the 1930s, when Tucker joined the Barons of Rhythm, a group of high school students who got so good that they landed gigs playing every Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Shady Rest Country Club in Scotch Plains, N.J., a social mecca for North Jersey's black elite.

He began working with Bailey after his discharge from the Army in 1946. That slot ended on the night he was accosted by Tony Scott outside a Manhattan club where Holiday was about to perform. He said her pianist had just quit and she needed an immediate replacement.

Tucker went onstage and played without so much as a warmup. Holiday offered him the job, and he stayed until 1949.

After leaving Holiday, Tucker became the conductor of the Eckstine band, then a nursery for bebop that included Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Parker, Art Blakey and Dexter Gordon.

In his later years, he recorded with veteran Manhattan trumpet player Joe Wilder.
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