This review was originally posted on the first Toorak Times web site where publications ceased on that site in March 2017. The old site will be permanently closed in 2020 and these reviews are being re-published in order to preserve them on the current Toorak Times/Tagg site.
This is number thirty nine in the series of albums I’m featuring as part of an on-going retrospective of vinyl albums in my personal collection.
The series is called, “Cream of The Crate”, and they represent vinyl albums that I believe are of significant musical value, either because of their rarity, because they represent the best of a style or styles of music or because their is something unique about the group or the music.
The album is “The Original Recordings” by Billie Holiday.
This album was released by CBS in 1972 (SBP23400) and is a mono production, as it should be, as all of Billies work were recorded in mono and should stay that way.
The story of Billie Holiday is a long and involved story that covers the extremes of creative success to the depths of despair.
Given that Billie did most of her recording in the 1930’s and 1940’s, it is possible that while many readers have heard her name, they know little about her.
Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan) grew up in jazz talent-rich Baltimore in the 1920s. As a young teenager, she served the beginning part of her so-called “apprenticeship” by singing along with records by Bessie Smith or Louis Armstrong in after-hours jazz clubs.
When her mother, Sadie Fagan, moved to New York in search of a better job, Billie eventually went with her. She made her true singing debut in obscure Harlem nightclubs and borrowed her professional name – Billie Holiday – from screen star Billie Dove.
Although she never underwent any technical training and never even so much as learned how to read music, Billie quickly became an active participant in what was then one of the most vibrant jazz scenes in the country. She would move from one club to another, working for tips.
She would sometimes sing with the accompaniment of a house piano player while other times she would work as part of a group of performers.
At the age of 18 and after gaining more experience than most adult musicians can claim. Billie was spotted by John Hammond and cut her first record as part of a studio group led by Benny Goodman, who was then just on the verge of public prominence.
In 1935 Billie’s career got a big push when she recorded four sides that went on to become hits, including “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Miss Brown to You.”
This landed her a recording contract of her own, and then, until 1942, she recorded a number of master tracks that would ultimately become an important building block of early American jazz music.
So much of Billie’s story misrepresents the truth.
In fact the liner notes on this album point out that almost one-third of the best selling book on her life, “The Lady Sings the Blues” – a book that was supposed to document her tormented life, was removed by the Publisher.
This was probably done in an attempt to “sanitise” her story, as it was so turbulent and reflected a path of self-destruction. In fact even the name of the book is misnomer in itself as she rarely sang what is considered to be ‘Blues’.
Among the demons she dealt with was, rape, a stint in prison, substance abuse, brutal love relationships, racial bigotry, de-humanizing government harassment, exploitation by promoters and selfish audiences.
In fact Billies quoted as saying about her audiences and why many came to see her was in the hope of seeing her, “fall into the damn orchestra pit.”
Several authors have pointed out, that the only thing that is a real reflection of Billie Holiday, is her recordings. No one has ever dared to tamper with them, and what we hear is exactly how she was recorded.
Nat Hentoff, critic at esteemed Downbeat Magazine called her voice, “steel-edged and yet soft inside; a voice that was almost unbearably wise in disillusion and yet still childlike….”
So let’s look at the tracks on this wonderful album!
One of the strengths of it is the fact that it covers thirty three of the thirty five years that she recorded.
Billie recorded between 1933 and 1958 and the disparity between her recordings is far greater than that caused by the time element, as they are often a reflection of dealing with those demons already spoken of.
The earliest recording on this album is the hit previously mentioned, “What a Little Moonlight Can Do“, recorded in 1935.
The most recent recording was her 1958 recording of “You’ve Changed“.
In between we are treated to a further 9 tracks.
|God Bless The Child
||recorded May 9, 1941
|All Of Me
||recorded March 21, 1941
||recorded February 20, 1958
|What A Little Moonlight Can Do
||recorded July 2, 1945
|Mean To Me
||recorded May 11, 1937
|Them There Eyes
||recorded July 5, 1939
|Miss Brown To You
|| recorded July 2, 1935
||recorded November 1, 1937
||recorded August 7, 1941
|I Cried For You
||recorded June 30, 1936
|The Man I Love
||recorded December 13, 1939
Let’s consider the earliest recording on this album – “What a Little Moonlight Can Do“.
The track really ‘rocks’, not because it IS Rock, in fact it’s pure jazz, but because the energy and tempo demands it.
And what a line-up!
The Teddy Wilson Orchestra, with Teddy on Piano. Incidentally if you are unaware, Teddy was amongst the biggest names in jazz in that era and along with Benny Goodman on Clarinet, Cozy Cole on Drums, they provide an uptempo beat that Billie slips into really comfortably.
What a Little Moonlight Can Do
I dip into the forties for the next track. ” All of Me” which is another full-on jazz composition, in fact written in 1931 it is considered as a jazz standard.
Unlike the last track, this is almost a ‘love song’. The song has been covered by everybody, who is anybody, such as Della Reese, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald – the list is mighty impressive
Yet Billy shines through with her version.
Here we can savour emotion without cheap sentimentality, simplicity without simple-mindedness, a force of expression that is achieved through restraint and understatement.
100/100 for this track alone!
All Of Me
The final track to talk about is that latest recording, which was her 1958 track, “You’ve Changed“.
By now her voice has started to suffer from a combination of drugs, drink and abuse, yet she still manages to sound better than many of her contemporaries at this time.
The track is a classic Big Band ‘night club’ style, lay back, gentle and reflective – one wonders if she could have been singing about herself. The backing instrumentation was full on with the Ray Ellis Orchestra supplemented with xylophone, guitar, additional brass, harp and strings.
To put it bluntly, there is not a ‘bad’ track on this album.
Billie Holiday was incapable of recording a bad track. Her live performances were at times a real ‘roll the dice’ job, and therefore her performances varied from the sublime to, the ridiculous.
Yet when she was in the studio, she became “The First Lady of Cool Jazz” – She was Billie Holiday.
Billie sang her swan song at a New York benefit in June of 1959.
A mere month later she was arrested on her death bed in a hospital, where she then spent her last days signing copies of her book and records for members of the New York Police Department.
They had been stationed there to stop her from ‘escaping’!
She finally made her escape, her final escape on July 17th 1959.
Ironically it is a sign of how she has been so forgotten, that copies of the album – “The Original Recordings“, can be bought on Ebay for as little as $8.00.
We are fortunate, that while there are not a lot of Youtube live performances of Billie Holiday, for obvious reasons, I did locate to live performances of tracks on this album, plus a live performance in 1958, which was toward the end of her life.
Billie Holiday’s screen debut (at 4min,40sec) in Duke Ellington’s Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life, 1935
(Also check out the dancing at the 3 minute mark)
My Man (1937)
God Bless the Child
Previous Cream of The Crate Albums:
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