He attended a school for the blind in Little Rock, Arkansas where he joined the school choir. He won an amateur talent contest in Memphis, Tennessee and at first worked with local bands, as well as starting a band of his own. In 1942 he joined a band led by Jay McShann, and the next year he joined Duke Ellington's band, replacing Herb Jeffries. He worked eight years with Ellington before becoming a soloist. Some of his singing is classified as rhythm and blues, but he is really best classified as a bridge between R&B and traditional pop music.