Fat Boy: The Billy Stewart Story

Late D.C. soul singer Billy Stewart’s biggest pop hit, his unique take on George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” showcased what still makes him memorable—his distinctive vocal techniques (dramatic repeating “la, la, la”s, rolling “R’’s), and his doubled words. Stewart’s take on the standard was heard in Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Stewart himself is seen singing it in grainy black and white footage from American Bandstand in the 2021 documentary Fat Boy: The Billy Stewart Story. Maryland-based director and Howard University graduate Beverly Lindsay-Johnson, whose catalogue includes Dance Party: The Teenarama Story and The Jewels: The Divas of DC Doo-Wop, uses vivid, dynamic color home movies of Stewart performing, as well as interviews with musicians and music historians. Lindsay-Johnson covers Stewart’s life, which ended tragically in a car accident in 1970 at age 32, in a quick 40 minutes. It showcases a creative 1950s and ’60s Black D.C. as it traces Stewart’s life from his gospel-singing childhood to harmonizing with Marvin Gaye, backing the all-female Jewels, and playing piano and singing at rock pioneer Bo Diddley’s home studio on Rhode Island Avenue NE. The Diddley connection led Stewart to Diddley’s label Chess in Chicago, where he had other hits including  “I Do Love You” and “Sitting in the Park.”  The film is followed by a 15-minute bonus segment about musicians who cover Stewart’s music—from Latin rock band Malo to D.C. go-go veterans Proper Utensils.  Malo’s Paul Benavidez cleverly notes Stewart’s phrasing is like a hummingbird jumping around, and the footage and audio here clearly prove that. The documentary is available to stream at pbs.org and will air on WHUT at 6 p.m. on April 18. Free.

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