Often there is laughter where you expect tears, kickass strength in the rendering of a weak lyric, and almost always, not too far beneath the surface, a smoldering sensuality. The following is a selection representing all of these moods, evidence of why Billie Holiday is still, almost 50 years after her death, one of the greatest artists our culture has produced.
‘Them There Eyes’
On: Lady Day:The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933– 1944
[1933–1934 (2001 ), Columbia/Legacy]
From 1933 to 1942 Holiday recorded on the ARC subsidiaries Brunswick, Columbia, and Vocalion. In these early recordings there is youthful exuberance but not innocence. Her version of “No Regrets” is not sung by the sad, nostalgic persona so often invoked by the lyrics. Instead she asserts, I’m not looking back, it was good, it’s over, I’m moving on. She opens both the first and second choruses with an emphatic, staccato “No regrets!” and by the time she returns to that phrase at song’s end we know her departing lover will be the one who’s sorry. With “Them There Eyes,” Billie lays on the rap: flirting with the boy who thinks he is taking the lead. She is by turns first-crush girlish (listen to the pouty way she sings, “My heart is jumpin’, you started something”) and wise in the ways of lovemaking: her “Aw baby!” and “You better watch out” are enough to make the sexual novice tremble with temptation, trepidation, and curiosity. She builds tension with the fast-paced “Ifellinlovewithyouthefirsttime-Ilookedinto” and then releases it with the prolonged “Them . . . there eyes.” The signs of the Lady to come are all there: perfect diction, a drop-dead sense of rhythm, behind-the-beat phrasing.
‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’
‘Swing, Brother, Swing’
Count Basie & His Orchestra
[1937 (1964), Columbia]
On: Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933–1944
[1933–1934 (2001 ), Columbia/Legacy]
These air checks of Billie singing with the Count Basie Orchestra (including her buddies Buck Clayton, Lester Young, and Jo Jones) from the famed Savoy Ballroom and the Meadowbrook in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, in 1937 were not released until 1964. Although the sound quality is not what we would want, Lady and the cats swing. These takes are especially valuable because she never made studio recordings with this band, which she sang with for nearly a year.
‘Strange Fruit’/’Fine and Mellow’
On: The Complete Commodore Recordings
[1939–1944 (1997), Commodore]
Although “Strange Fruit” garnered lots of press and has assumed its place in history, the hit was its B side, “Fine and Mellow.” Recorded two weeks after Lady Day’s 24th birthday, this music comes from a more mature artist than the one on Columbia. She strips “Strange Fruit” to a bare essence, paring down her choice of notes to emphasize the words; the understatement only intensifies the horror of the picture she paints. “Fine and Mellow” is slower and more languid than future versions will be. On both tunes we hear Holiday emerge as storyteller, practicing a craft honed in the cabaret setting of Café Society. This begins her long association with Milt Gabler, who would record her for both Commodore and Decca.
‘My Sweet Hunk o’ Trash’
‘You’re My Thrill’
[ 1949, decca
‘God Bless the Child’
On: The Complete Decca Recordings
[1944–1950 ( 1991), Decca]
The Commodore sides are jazz excursions; the Decca sides are pop tunes. “Lover Man,” recorded with violins, was her biggest hit. For the Decca re- cordings Gabler selected the songs with which she would be forever identified. She also recorded a number of upbeat tunes that give us another side of Lady Day. Consider “My Sweet Hunk o’ Trash,” the bawdy duet with Louis Armstrong—a couple’s affectionate quarrel. Thereis sheer joy and laughter in Lady’s voice on this one. When she sings, “Now whenyou stay out very late/It sure makes me sad to wait,” does he respond, “How come baby?” or “Fuck ’em baby”? While the duet suggests a playful sexuality, the Gordon Jenkins–accompanied “You’re My Thrill” feels almost dangerous in its addictive, nearly obsessive eroticism. This “God Bless the Child” is a clunker due not to Lady Day but to the hokey choir that precedes her entrance. Although the arrangements drag, and at times the effort to make her a pop star seems misguided, Lady is at the peak of her vocal powers during the Gabler years.
‘Be Fair With Me Baby’
‘Rocky Mountain Blues’
On: Billie’s Blues
[1951 (1991), Blue Note]
These two blue gems are pleasant surprises in the Holiday songbook. Although the production is hum- drum with Gabler gone, there is still something infectious about Lady’s insinuations on the suggestive “Be Fair With Me Baby.” “Rocky Mountain Blues”: “I cried last night/I cried all the night before/I dried my eyes this morning/And I ain’t gonna cry no more.” What more is there to say?
Music for Torching
From 1952 to 1957 Holiday recorded for Verve under the guidance of Jazz at the Philharmonic’s Norman Granz. Although the voice is not always as strong, her artistry and musicianship have only improved, as have her accompaniment, material, and arrangements. The haunting “Some Other Spring” offers a promise of future romance that seems rather tenuous.
Lady in Satin
Yes, her voice is a shadow of what it was, but in its honesty, artistry, and poignant beauty, her penultimate album is one of the most important works produced by the exquisite Lady Day. “You’ve Changed” and “I’m a Fool to Want You” trouble us long after listening. “You Don’t Know What Love Is” has convinced generations that they haven’t been in love without having experienced loss, desperation, and insomnia.
The Ultimate Collection
[1935–1958 (2005 ), Verve]
Holiday also proved charismatic and compelling in a number of film clips. The greatest of these is the 1957 CBS broadcast The Sound of Jazz: Lady Day with Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Lester Young, Gerry Mulligan, Roy Eldridge, and Jo Jones, to name a few in a ritual-like jam session. Though the clip has been released in many formats, this one is valuable because it comes with others. The face and body transform, the texture and timbre of the voice evolve, but she always manages to communicate with a simple gesture: a lifted eyebrow, a tilt of the head, a snap of the finger. In the beginning, these gestures communicate a mischievous flirta-tion; by the end they connote a depth of wisdom that is matched by the grain of her voice. In addition, although this career-spanning collection misses many high points, the beginning listener could do worse than start with it.