Billie Holiday

TrackAlbum
What A Little Moonlight Can DoBrunswick 7498 (1935)
I'll Get ByBrunswick 7903 (1937)
Me, Myself And IVocalion 3593 (1937)
A Sailboat In The MoonlightVocalion 3605 (1937)
Strange FruitCommodore C-526 (1939)
All Of MeColumbia C2 34849 (1941)
God Bless The ChildOKeh 6270 (1941)
Trav'lin' LightCapitol 116 (1942)
That Old Devil Called LoveDecca 23391 (1944)
Good Morning HeartacheDecca 23676 (1946)
Ain't Nobody's Business If I DoDecca 24726 (1949)
All Or Nothing At AllAll Or Nothing At All (1956)
Lady Sings The BluesLady Sings The Blues (1956)
For All We KnowLady In Satin (1958)
I'm A Fool To Want YouLady In Satin (1958)

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Contributor: Calvin Rydbom

By the time she first stepped foot in a recording studio at the age of 18 with Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday had led quite a life. She had been performing in night clubs for four years, a career move she made after spending the summer of 1929 in a workhouse for being a prostitute. Still, it was while working in brothels that she first heard the music of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith.

It was legendary producer John Hammond who “discovered” her singing at Covan’s on West 132nd Street in late 1932. Hammond was later quoted as saying “Her singing almost (emphasis mine) changed my music tastes and my musical life, because she was the first girl singer I’d come across who actually sang like an improvising jazz genius”.

Holiday always said she wanted her voice to be like an instrument, and arguably no singer has ever come as close to doing that as she did. Her delivery had an improvisational quality that hid its flaws, especially late in her career. Her vocals resonate with emotional power that grabs your heart and mind. It’s about the way she sings melodies with a rhythm and phrasing that seems more that of a musician than a singer. Longtime curator of Jazz at Lincoln Center Phil Schaap has done several studies where he compared Holiday and the playing of Louis Armstrong. He considers it fact she was a singer who learned her phrasings, who essentially learned how to sing, listening not to other singers, but to a horn player. Hammond made some of the same comparisons years before Schaap did.

As countless biographies have been written about Holiday there is very little I can say here that most of you bothering to read this don’t know. So we should just start talking about the music, which sadly has been lost a little over the years to a fascination with Holiday being yet another artist whose self destructive life eventually overshadowed her artistry and genuis.

Very quickly into her career, before she was even 20, she partnered with piano player and band leader Teddy Wilson. Wilson led many of her early great sessions. What A Little Moonlight Can Do was recorded by an all star band put together and produced by John Hammond. Featuring Wilson, Holiday, Roy Eldridge, Benny Goodman and Ben Webster it’s a great tune. After a short intro by Wilson, Goodman starts the song out playing in the 32-bar Tin Pan Alley Style. But he does so on the lowest register his clarinet could be played at before just setting the place on fire, or at least as much fire setting as clarinet playing can accomplish. And Holiday’s voice seems so assured and sophisticated for someone only out of her teens for two and a half months. This was the first session in the Holiday-Wilson partnership that lasted from 1935-1938, and according to Wilson they were never better. Sometimes they might have been as good, but to him they never were any better than they were in July of 1935.

Another Wilson-Holiday collaboration was 1937’s I’ll Get By, which is admittedly a classic of which superb versions have been done by countless performers. This time out Wilson and Holiday were joined by Buck Clayton, Johnny Hodges and the most important musical partner of Holidays career, Lester Young.

They met in 1934 when Young was a boarder at her mother’s house. They always had an unworldly musical rapport. Years later Young said when he listened to their records it was like listening to the same voice and mind. He named her Lady Day, she called him Prez. They inspired each other to go places they might not have otherwise. In this early collaboration he deviates from the standard Tin Pan Alley 32-bar and plays a 28-bar, odd for a popular song at that time. He plays it in the equally odd ABAC structure with the B and C being six bars instead of eight, also hardly the norm. Holiday is just as daring, reaching the bottom of her range a couple of times while maintaining a rhythm that should have been extremely awkward but wasn’t. Holiday and Young were special together.

A month later Holiday and Young, along with Clayton and Jo Jones, recorded Me, Myself And I which is probably the song that first made me understand the somewhat simplistic description of Holiday as someone who sings behind the beat. The ending of the song is one of those rare moments where a singer and player go beyond duet and become one sound. There are two takes of this song available on Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933–1944, and they have distinctly different endings. I’ve never really decided which I prefer as they are both wonderful.

The same session offers up A Sailboat In The Moonlight, where once again it’s impossible not to be captivated by the interplay between Young and Holiday. They almost seemed to anticipate where the other was going to go. I once read a article which claimed there is a moment in the song where the two of them swing together in such utter perfection that captured the very essence of jazz. A strong statement, but defenseable.

It just wasn’t the musicianship that made her special either. By this point Holiday had begun to see herself as somewhat a marketable commodity in my mind. It was her, and not her producers or agents, that created the persona of the lady so very unlucky in love and used it to promote her performances.

In 1939 Holiday was introduced to Strange Fruit, a song based on a poem about the lynchings of black men in the south. John Hammond and Columbia refused to record it as they were afraid the subject matter was too controversial. Milt Gabler at Commodore Records wanted to record it, and oddly enough Columbia agreed to give her a one session release to record the song for the alternative jazz label. She recorded it more than once, but the 1939 version with the 70 second piano intro is the version you have to hear. Without absolutely any airplay the song became a major hit for Holiday and eventually became her biggest selling record. She sang it at Café Society, an integrated nightclub in New York’s Greenwich Village. When she sang it there she made the crowd go silent. During the long introduction she demanded no movement in the crowd and had the lights dimmed. When she started to sing, a single spotlight illuminated only her face. On the final note the house lights went out, and when they came on Holiday was no longer on the stage. As I said, she knew how to market herself.

1941 saw Holiday and Young’s final Columbia session together. One take of the classic song All Of Me was lost for decades. They did a few other takes of the song, which was actually during an Eddie Heywood session, that day but I love the one that went about 30 seconds too long for the ten-inch 78s of the day. The way Young, Holiday and Heywood traded off with each other has to be heard to understood. This version didn’t see the light of day for 39 years. Not that the other takes weren’t great in there own right, but this one is something special.

God Bless The Child has always been the song known for being written by Billie Holiday. Truthfully she contributed a couple of lines to the song actually written by Arthur Herzog. And those were from an argument she recently had with her mother. She had set her mother up with a diner and had been paying its bills for sometime when her Mom, “The Duchess”, invariably came up short. Supposedly once when Holiday found herself short she dropped by the diner she had been bankrolling for her mother and asked her Mom for a little money. Her Mother flatly refused to let her have a dime although she had money in the diner to giver her. A fight ensued where Holiday remembered saying “God Bless the Child that’s got his own”. And a song was born. It lashes out at those who prey on the weak. Yet there is something in Holiday’s delivery that seems to accept the world will always be that way.

1942’s Trav’lin’ Light is yet another song that was another musician’s session which Holiday guested on. This time with Paul Whiteman, which honestly doesn’t seem like it should work for me as I always saw Whiteman as incredibly bland big band jazz for the mainstream. Holiday isn’t usually seen as a big band singer although she did significant stints with Artie Shaw, Count Basie and Duke Ellington as well as shorter stints with Fletcher Henderson and Bennny Goodman. But she was just as wonderful at being in front of an orchestra as she was with small groups. The song plays right into the persona of the lady unlucky in love she had molded for herself, and she alters the melody with her singing to bring a sort of gravitas to the song that wouldn’t have been there with a lesser vocalist. The strings work well for Holiday here and supposedly inspired her to use strings in the future, which didn’t always work for her.

That Old Devil Called Love, recorded in 1944, is a song that both is and isn’t a Holiday song at that point of her career. Yes it’s about how love can be obsessive, dark and destructive. Yet all the while we have no choice but to go down the dark path. But it isn’t quite a jazz track in the way the Columbia Recordings are. Producer Milt Gabler made the conscious decision to move her more into the pop genre at Decca to differentiate from her Columbia jazz recordings. The singing behind the beat that had been her signature wasn’t as evident here, as Gabler wanted her to play up her emotive talents while placing her in front of six string players.

Good Morning Heartache was another Gabler production, and yet another song specifically written for Holiday at his request. It built on the character she had created for herself, but instead of being a song about chasing away the blues or finding love, there seems to be an acceptance that heartache is simply part of her life and she is not all that concerned it’s never going away.

Astute readers will have noticed we just reached ten songs and I don’t seem to be wrapping things up. Essentially, no matter how hard I tried, it couldn’t get lower than fifteen songs.

The late 1940s and early 1950s weren’t the best years for Holiday, either personally or professionally. In 1947 she was sentenced to a year in in prison for possession of narcotics, and wasn’t released until March of 1948. When her struggles with drugs and alcohol became common knowledge her live performances began to draw those who wanted to see her for reasons other than her artistry, which angered her greatly. Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do in 1949 became an anthem of sorts to the fans of her music and she always sang it during live performances. Audiences had started seeing her as more fragile and broken down by life, but this song is defiant. Audience though were now often encouraged by Holiday to read her personal life into her songs. No longer was the lady unlucky in love working as a stage persona so the lady unlucky in life took center stage and became the Billie Holiday that has been handed down over the past 50+ years.

Norman Granz and Verve Records wanted her to try and re-establish the informal jazz session, and of course serve to re-establish her, feeling her 1930s Columbia sides with Wilson and Young had been her best work. Alcohol and drug addiction had destroyed her concentration and in many ways her voice. But she overcame, even though her voiced was clearly frayed and ragged, deeper with an inability to reach the higher range of notes she had in her 20s. She used her genius for making songs her own by avoiding notes beyond her range, and not in an obvious way as much as in the same way she personalized songs in years past with her own pacing and stylization. These choices are very obvious in 1956’s All Or Nothing At All. The Sweets Edison and Ben Webster horn section offered a perfect complement to her interpretation of the song, which smacks of high drama. But as I said some of her songs at this point make you empathize with problems and make you view her as a woman beaten down by the life she has led. It’s intensely personal and moving really.

I had considered leaving out Lady Sings The Blues from the same year as it’s a bit of a cliché to include it and what can I say about it that I just didn’t say about All Or Nothing At All. Nothing really, I’d describe it much the same, there are even points in the song where her voice seems to crack. Yet it’s hard to ignore the intensity of the song as she picks over and over again the perfect notes to convey the emotion she desires. She goes from sad to determined that she’ll never sing the blues again.

In February of 1958 Holiday went into the studio with Ray Ellis and in three days cut Lady In Satin. There was one album to come after this, but it was anti-climatic really. Holiday would be gone by mid summer of 1959. But she had a great album left in her. Her voice was finished. It was rough from years of drinking and her phrasing was shaky. The album’s power comes from the voice of a woman seemingly coming to terms with the tragedy of her life, it’s uncomfortable albeit powerful listening really. Ellis commented on the album many times over the years as he felt you couldn’t appreciate the album without understanding how it was the story of her life. He has gone as far as to say that she clearly chose songs that illustrated where she was in her life. In other interviews he’s said she worked very hard to maintain an aesthetic difference between her work and her life during the recording. It’s up for debate I suppose. What isn’t is how good the album is. For All We Know and I’m A Fool To Want You are amazing must listens.

Billie Holiday was an unique artist, one of a kind really. I can’t explain completely why here, as I said dozens of books have been written to try to explain why. Just listen to these songs, they are timeless, incredible, and portray an artist who is really unparalleled in music.

 

The Official Bille Holiday Website

Billie Holiday Songs

The unofficial Billie Holiday website

Billie Holiday biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #378

5 Comments

  1. Keith Shackleton
    Nov 5, 2014

    Any additional comment here seems superfluous. Fine article, Calvin, one of the best.

  2. John Chamberlain
    Nov 5, 2014

    Enjoyable read and all I can say is that all the choices are fine except that I’d have difficulty stopping there. A must see video is from a 1957 CBS TV performance: Billie sings “Fine and mellow” with a marvellous selection of solos from some jazz greats http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hhdYoWhBKhM

    • Calvin Rydbom
      Nov 6, 2014

      I was stuck on 22 for a few weeks before I finally pushed myself to get down to 15 John. It was difficult. It’s really a shame she isn’t viewed as the equal of contemporaries like Sinatra, Garland and Crosby, as she most certainly is.

      • David Lewis
        Nov 6, 2014

        Fear not, Calvin: at least in the circles in which I run, she’s seen as easily the equal. I think critical acclaim is coming round – I think Gioia’s history of jazz is one example of Billie’s critical acclaim.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Nov 6, 2014

    Sinatra on Billie: “Billie Holiday was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me. Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years”

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