Billie Holiday (1915-1959), born Eleanora Fagan (her mother’s last name), has become iconic as the greatest female jazz singer in history, but in all honesty Billie was only a jazz singer part of the time. For those who have never heard her, and believe it or not, there are many, it was (and this is an objective description, not a criticism) a thin, wiry voice with a range of about an octave. Her strong suit lie in her ability to phrase like a jazz horn. Billie was the female equivalent of Louis Armstrong, and for the first third of her career she excelled in singing popular songs in a jazz-tinged, swinging style, phrasing (but not improvising) like a jazz horn. Thanks in part to John Hammond, who organized dozens of small group recording sessions for her with ARC (American Record Corporation) nominally led by pianist Teddy Wilson, she recorded with the crème de la crème of black and white jazz musicians. In 1937 she also spent a year as a member of Count Basie’s great band, where she formed a strong musical and personal bond with his star tenor saxist, Lester Young, that would last for the rest of their lives.
Holiday quit the Basie band over a gig in which she was forced to dress like a pickaninny and joined the all-white orchestra of Artie Shaw. Shaw adored and protected Billie, but couldn’t stop all the racism she encountered in both the North and South when they were on tour, and after six months she resigned once again. This was in 1938,and at this point she signed a contract with Milt Gabler’s Commodore Records, where she entered phase two of her career. Recording deeper, more meaningful songs like Strange Fruit and God Bless the Child, she morphed from a jazzy pop singer into a very deep interpreter of lyrics.
Gabler was offered a job as the jazz A&R man at Decca Records, and he took it, abandoning his own private label. One of the artists he wooed to Decca was Holiday, who signed a contract in 1944 and stayed until the spring of 1950. These were her peak years as an interpretive artist; she still retained her ability to swing, but it was now subdued. working in the background of an interpretive art that deepened into something rich and full and unique. The recordings she made during this time are, in my opinion, the high watermark of her entire career. Following her Decca years she recorded some fine performances for Norman Granz in the early ‘50s, but by 1954 her voice was shot.Years of heroin abuse had ravaged her body and taken a toll on her vocal cords, from which she never recovered.
So why aren’t the Decca recordings more highly prized? The answer lies in the accompaniments. Gabler purposely softened the jazz content of her recordings, focusing instead on her newfound ability to “read” a lyric like no one else. In a 1990 interview, Gabler explained his reasoning: “When you went into a club and listened to Billie, she’d lovingly sing these slow ballads. She would sing for losers and really read a lyric.” And that is the secret to the greatness of these recordings. In order to sell them to mainstream America, Gabler and Decca “gussied up” Billie a little with lush orchestras, often including strings. The jazzier numbers, like Them There Eyes, Gimme a Pigfoot or Now or Never had less lush orchestral backing, replacing the strings with quasi-bop brass, but again the tempos tended to be on the slow side most of the time.
The “worst” recording and the one that irks most Holiday admirers was from her last Decca session, God Bless the Child. On this, arranger Gordon Jenkins saddled Holiday with not only strings and flutes but also with a very white-sounding chorus. Gabler, who wasn’t present for this session, was appalled when he heard the record, but Billie liked it because she felt that the white chorus sounded aloof and not understanding the lyrics which she then sang with poignant meaning. But of course, there were others that didn’t have a chorus: Easy Living, You Better Go Now, You’re My Thrill, Don’t Explain, Good Morning Heartache, Keeps on Rainin’, Lover Man, Crazy He Calls Me and Deep Song. And each of them, and others besides, are masterpieces. As Gabler said, she “lovingly” sang these slow ballads and “really read a lyric.” In her own way, within the confines of American popular songs, Billie Holiday was as great an interpreter as any lieder singer who ever lived. The difference was only in the quality of voice, not in the quality of interpretation.
Back when I was in college I had to have a weekend job to help pay for my education (my parents refused to contribute a dime…they could afford it, they had it, but they refused to because they wanted it for themselves to spend on liquor and good times). I was a security guard on the graveyard shift in a large chemical plant. My job was to do a once-hourly clock tour and keep an eye on the mice. It was like working in a huge covered graveyard. To keep my sanity and my spirits up, I bought an 8-track tape player because it was portable and sturdy, and there were two tapes I wore to death. One was Harry Nilsson’s Harry album and the other was Billie Holiday’s Greatest Hits on Decca. I burned those Holiday Decca recordings into my brain until I could replay them by hitting an imaginary button in my brain. But more importantly, Holiday’s singing of these songs kept my spirits up and sustained me through these angst-filled and difficult years. Yes, I also liked the earlier Holiday recordings on ARC, but they weren’t like these. These were special, and they remain so. Listen to the way she could twist the voice on a phrase, sometimes replacing singing with speaking a word. Only Billie Holiday could pull that off and make it work…no one else.
Holiday could break your heart, but she could also put it back together again. Always in her voice was the underlying feeling: “We’re in this together, you and me. We’ve both been treated like shit in life, but hang in there…somehow we’ll survive.” It wasn’t the voice of a mother, not even the voice of a lover, but the voice of a trusted friend, one you knew would never lie or mislead you.
And that, dear readers, is the real reason why no one else has ever successfully “sounded like Billie Holiday.” Not Marilyn Moore, not Madeleine Peyroux, not Katharine Whelan, and certainly not Diana Ross. There was only one Billie Holiday, and this is a distillation of her greatness.
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley