"That Old Black Magic" was the magic wand for performer Billy Daniels in terms of hits. He was so thoroughly associated with the Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen standard that, in the '50s, any impressionist worth his lower lip included at least a half-chorus imitation of Daniels doing his song. Generations hence, with many fewer impressionists working to keep his memory alive, the lingering impact of such a massive hit might create the impression that
Daniels could perform only one musical card trick. Nothing could be further from the truth: he was a versatile and busy performer who hosted his own television show in the early '50s, gigged regularly in nightclubs with a top-notch road band, and in addition pursued a film career with some success.
While there are many singers who worked as waiters, Daniels actually got his performing start during a gimmicky fad of singing waiters, circa New York City in the early '30s. He was serving Erskine Hawkins, a breast of chicken to be precise, but the bandleader was more impressed with the vocalization than the marination. From 1934, the 19-year-old Daniels was the featured vocalist in the Hawkins big band, coming up in an era when singers had to project mightily. It was quite a contrast to the expectations that developed for a crooner in the period after Daniels began recording under his own name.
The man's talents as a vocalist, inspirational to male singers such as Mark Murphy and Ernie Andrews, were the results of nothing if not intensive labor. He claimed to have sung every day of the year 1937, and not in the shower either. That year he was employed daily by at least a dozen different radio sponsors. In the late '30s he also appeared in his first film, entitled Sepia Cinderella, which was hardly as well known as some of his later screen appearances in movie musicals such as When You're Smiling and Sunny Side of the Street, both released in 1950. The former presented the singer with a golden opportunity to present what would become his signature song.
If he put across "That Old Black Magic" like a palace aflame by then, it was surely the result of nearly a decade of singing the number in clubs, especially the many haunts of New York's 52nd Street. He first graduated to the Broadway stage in 1945, and would continue to do well in the medium throughout his career. In the '50s he made great developments in his performing style in collaboration with the fine pianist and arranger Benny Payne; this duo was one of the first black acts to be allowed on television in America. In 1964 Daniels performed on Broadway with Sammy Davis Jr. in Golden Boy. In the '70s he appeared in productions of Hello, Dolly! and Bubbling Brown Sugar. Continuing to work in clubs up until his death, Daniels gladly pulled a disco version of "That Old Black Magic" out of his raspberry beret right in time for the Saturday Night Fever crowd. His daughter Yvonne Daniels was a famous disc jockey. ~ Eugene Chadbourne