Coming of age in the 1970s, the icon status of Billie Holiday was just a fact. She was always there, thanks in part to our father, who had a well-played copy of All or Nothing At All on Verve Records, and of course to Diana Ross who played Billie Holiday in the film Lady Sings the Blues. Much of her catalogue was in print as we were developing our musical tastes and Billie was simply a fact of life.
Listening to Billie Holiday without the historical perspective or jazz snob filters, we appreciated her early work on Brunswick with Lester Young, Teddy Wilson, etc. but really liked her later work on Verve better. It was more intimate and modern, and that period of music (the 1950s) helped define classic pop singing for the entire century. Not being attached to her earlier work, we weren't torn apart by the loss of quality in her voice. We just heard what was there and loved it.
We recently read Stuart Nicholson's dry but fine biography, Billie Holiday (Northeastern University Press), followed by listening sessions with the Past Perfect 10-CD box featuring the bulk of her early years, the Commodore 2-CD set on GRP, the complete Verve box and Lady in Satin on Sony/Columbia. Really listening to all of these recordings over a period of two weeks has changed our perspective on Billie Holiday, both as a person and as a singer. On the one hand, she seems more human and accessible rather than an historical icon, and on the other, she's so much better than we ever understood, despite listening to her for so many years.
We started with the early years. It's amazing that such a young woman had such a distinct and natural style, excluding a few hiccup recordings here and there. There are moments she really does sound like Lester Young on the saxophone and even though the voice is so different, it's hard not to hear Louis Armstrong in many of these recordings. That's the historically important stuff, and we do understand it, but what also comes through loud and clear is that Billie Holiday was a big, boisterous, fun-loving woman. We know she had her problems and was probably using drugs to some degree at this point but she seemed to be having a ball and this is something that no one, not even the "experts" seem to overlook. We suspect it would be impossible to swing so beautifully and not have a great sense of joy. We're not saying she wasn't difficult, complex or self-destructive. However, it's hard, if not impossible, to reconcile the image of a waif/victim (helped along for a generation or two by the portrayal of Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues) with the woman singing these songs. Serious jazz buffs will puff their chests and tell you there were too many irrelevant novelty numbers during this period but they're missing the point. Yes, there are many novelty numbers (Yankee Doodle Never Went to Town, One Two Button Your Shoe), but they work. We are not purists. We just want to hear good music and on some level, these novelty numbers are a blast and require no apology. And it doesn't sound like Billie is in great pain singing ditties as opposed to making jazz masterpieces on every recording.
Another thing we like about the novelty numbers and non-standard songs is the variety. As Billie had more control of her repertoire, the number of songs she would sing became fewer and fewer. Hearing a really wonderful, joyous swinger like You're a Lucky Guy is a treat if you've heard twenty versions of All of Me or What a Little Moonlight Can Do.
It seems that at some point, the drugs use became more frequent. Billie's complex mother-daughter relationship came to an ugly head when her mother finally died and her self-worth seemed to be tied up in having a man, any man, no matter how wrong he was for her. Her songs started to support only the unlucky aspects of her life and the innovations took a back seat to the story telling, although it would be impossible to separate Billie Holiday from her jazz. It's been suggested that her repertoire became slimmer because she had so much trouble learning new tunes due to her drug habit.
Her recordings for Norman Granz and his family of labels were made during what are reported to be some of her most troubled times, but even on these discs, we hear great music, despite the weaker voice. Her sense of intimacy is increased and you get the feeling it's not just because her instrument wasn't as strong. She'd become a much better singer. And even though the songs are sadder and there's a sense of defeat in her voice, there are still moments of joy. Despite all the misery life heaped on her and she brought on herself, the pilot light remained on. Even Lady in Satin, her next to last album, which many claim they can't listen to because her voice is so ravaged, has great moments, along with a sense of focus and intimacy her earlier recordings can't touch.
Looking back, Lady Sings the Blues was a great move for Diana Ross and a dire circumstance for the legacy of Billie Holiday. It was completely devoid of Holiday's passion for music and helped perpetuate the idea that Billie Holiday was simply a victim of her race and times. She was a victim but she was much more. To leave her legacy to Hollywood, or to Jazz buffs is to miss a huge chunk of great, popular music.
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