HOLIDAY, Billie: Fine and Mellow

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\ Fine and Mellow " Original 1936 - 1941 Recordings

"She was not a blues singer, but she sang popular songs in a manner that made them completely her own. She had an uncanny ear, an excellent memory for lyrics, and she sang with an exquisite sense of phrasing … I decided that night that she was the best jazz singer I had ever heard." – John Hammond

"The definitive modern jazz singer after whom most significant jazz singing styles since swing have been fashioned." – Barry Ulanov

One of the outstanding cult-figures of 20th century popular music and rivalled only by Ella Fitzgerald, recent research has proven that Billie Holiday was born Eleonora De Viese in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on April 7, 1915. The illegitimate child of 19-year-old Baltimore housemaid Sadie Fagan (later Gough) and waiter Frank De Veazy, she was raised in Baltimore, Maryland. With occasional assistance from her surrogate father Clarence Holiday, a former trumpeter (who, owing to a respiratory disorder sustained in France during active service in World War 1, later played guitar, most notably with McKinney’s Cotton Pickers and, in the early 1930s, with Fletcher Henderson’s prestigious Roseland Ballroom Band) she was brought up mainly by her mother, amid struggle and squalor. As a child she scrubbed floors for a living and in her early teens worked as a prostitute, so could later candidly claim (in an interview for Tan Magazine in 1953) that "There was nothing about living on the sidewalks that I didn’t know".

Her youthful heroes, first heard on records, began and ended with blues-singer Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong and, as talent promoter and recording A & R man John Hammond was later to remark, "She always loved Armstrong’s sound and it is not too much to say that she sang the way he played horn." And when she moved to Harlem, Billie and her mother were able to hear Louis and the other jazz giants in the flesh. At fifteen, Billie was herself already singing in speakeasies and vocalising in jam sessions with players of high calibre, including Benny Carter, Roy Eldridge, Charlie Shavers, Buck Clayton, and, especially, Lester Young (1909-1959), with whom she worked regularly and formed a close personal attachment (she affectionately dubbed him ‘Prez’, the President, and it was he who baptised her ‘Lady Day’).

"Discovered" by the 22-year-old Hammond in what he described as "the kind of accident I dreamed of", at Monette Moore’s speakeasy on New York’s West 133rd street in early 1933, "she sang as if she had really lived, she was just 17, slightly overweight and completely unknown." Unknown, that is, outside of Harlem, which was for the pioneering Hammond a big problem: she was too young and, being unknown, initially no one was prepared to record her, except Benny Goodman "who wanted to record … using Billie Holiday". As Columbia also wanted to record Goodman, in November 1933 Goodman booked his first ever Negro artist to record alongside such white jazz giants as Teagarden and Krupa.

It was, however, mid-1935 before she could record on a regular basis and then, incredibly, in low-budget, completely unrehearsed sessions for Brunswick with Teddy Wilson’s Orchestra ("The pay was lousy, but the music was wonderful …!") and took another year for her to secure a Vocalion race series contract which billed her own orchestra comprising among its ad hoc personnel Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw, Ben Webster, Buck Clayton, Claude Thornhill, Eldridge, Wilson and Young – all of whom loved working with Billie, their un-crowned "queen".

Several of her "own orchestra" discs became best-sellers and were entered in the race charts and of those which also found their way into the contemporary US popular charts, fourteen were placed in the Top 10, headed by the No.1 "Carelessly" (in 1937) and the No.2 "I’m Gonna Lock My Heart" (in 1938). Among the others charted were "A Sailboat In The Moonlight" at No.10 (in this and in Johnny Mercer’s "When A Woman Loves A Man" she blends intimately with Lester Young’s solos), J. Fred Coots’ "You Go To My Head" at No.20 and "God Bless The Child" (on Okeh) at No.25. During the late 1930s, Billie also sang with the Count Basie and Artie Shaw Orchestras. Owing to contractual reasons, she could not record commercially with Basie (although an off-air recording of "They Can’t Take That Away From Me" has been in circulation for many years) and she recorded only one side with Art, "Any Old Time" (for Bluebird), in July 1938).

In April 1939 Columbia released Billie to Commodore to enable her to record "Strange Fruit" – a setting of Lewis Allen’s dramatic poem about lynching which Columbia preferred to pass over, on account of its controversial racial protest element. The song, recorded with a backing group led by trumpeter Frankie Newton (with whom she was then appearing at Café Society) was charted at No.16 and remained ever after among her biggest successes. That session (April 20th 1939) also produced three other Holiday standards: a heartfelt account of Jerome Kern’s poignant "Yesterdays", a definitive version of Harold Arlen’s "I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues" and her own composition "Fine And Mellow".

Lady Sings The Blues, her engagingly written but unreliable best-selling memoir which appeared in 1956, loosely formed the basis of the largely fictional, 1972 Oscar-nominated Paramount-Motown biopic which has perpetuated the Holiday legend. Billie Holiday died in New York, on 17 July 1959, aged 44 years.

Peter Dempsey, 2001


1. THEM THERE EYES (Pinkard–Tracey–Tauber)

(Vocalion 5021; mx W 24789-A) Recorded 5th July, 1939 2:49

2. BODY AND SOUL (Green–Sour–Heyman–Eyton)

(Okeh 5481; mx W 26573-1) Recorded 29th February, 1940 2:55

3. BILLIE’S BLUES (Holiday)

(Vocalion 3288; mx 19538-2) Recorded 10th July, 1936 2:38


(Vocalion 3605; mx 21250-1) Recorded 15th June, 1937 2:48

5. HE’S FUNNY THAT WAY (Whiting–Moret)

(Vocalion 3748; mx 21689-1) Recorded 15th September, 1937 2:37

6. NOW THEY CALL IT SWING (Hirsch–deLeath–Cloutier–Handman)

(Vocalion 3947; mx 22281-2) Recorded 12th January, 1938 2:57

7. WHEN A WOMAN LOVES A MAN (Mercer–Hanighen–Jenkins)

(Vocalion 4029; mx 22284-2) Recorded 12th January. 1938 2:23

8. ANY OLD TIME (Shaw)

(Bluebird B 7759; mx BS 024083-1) Recorded 24th July, 1938 3:10

9. YOU GO TO MY HEAD (Gilliespie–Coots)

(Vocalion 4126; mx 22921-1) Recorded 11th May, 1938 2:50


(Vocalion 4457; mx 23467-1) Recorded 13th September, 1938 2:42

11. I CAN’T GET STARTED (Duke–I.Gershwin)

(Vocalion 4457; mx 23468-1) Recorded 13th September, 1938 2:45


(Vocalion 3947; mx 22282-1) Recorded 12th January, 1938 3:01


(Commodore 527; mx WP 24406-B) Recorded 20th April, 1939 2:49

Disc: 1
Swing, Brother, Swing
1 Them There Eyes
2 Body and Soul
3 Billie's Blues
4 A Sailboat in the Moonlight
5 He's Funny That Way
6 Now They Call It Swing
7 When a Woman Loves a Man
8 Any Old Time
9 You Go to My Head
10 The Very Thought of You
11 I Can't Get Started
12 On The Sentimental Side
13 I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues
14 Yesterdays
15 Strange Fruit
16 Fine And Mellow
17 God Bless The Child
18 Swing, Brother, Swing
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