HOLIDAY, Billie: You're My Thrill
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BILLIE HOLIDAY Vol.4
'You're My Thrill' Original Recordings 1944-1949
Billie Holiday's recording career can be easilydivided into three parts. During 1933-42 shegenerally recorded with groups of swing all-stars,taking a vocal chorus while holding her own on awide variety of material (some good, someforgettable) with such contemporaries as tenorsaxophonistLester Young, trumpeter BuckClayton and pianist Teddy Wilson. In the 1950sLady Day recorded superior standards with someof the top veteran jazz musicians but her voicefaded and one had to concentrate on herpassionate level of self-expression rather than herintonation. You're My Thrill has her bestrecordings from her middle period.
The Billie Holiday story is full of drama,tragedy and musical triumphs. She was born asEleanora Harris on 7 April 1915 in Baltimore,Maryland to a couple who never married. Herfather, whom she only met a few times, wasClarence Holiday who played guitar for a fewyears with Fletcher Henderson's orchestra. Shetook her father's last name and liked the sound ofthe name Billie; perhaps it was her way ofescaping a scary and poverty-stricken childhood.
Holiday was not a child for long and she survivedher early days with an inferiority complex thatwould help lead to her making consistently baddecisions throughout her life. However sheemerged with a determination to live life as wellas she could. Inspired by Bessie Smith and LouisArmstrong (particularly in her phrasing), Holidaywas singing in a Harlem club in 1933 when shewas discovered by producer John Hammond. Heteamed her with Benny Goodman and JackTeagarden on two numbers that were recordedand, although those selections were not toosuccessful, it was a start.
Holiday appeared in a film short with DukeEllington (singing a blues chorus) and shefreelanced in clubs. In 1935 she got her big breakwhen Hammond hit upon the idea of havingTeddy Wilson put together all-star swing groupsfor record dates. Some of the selections featuredBillie Holiday and those became quite popular.
Holiday's style was controversial at the timebecause she phrased behind-the-beat. She alsochanged notes to fit her small voice and rangerather than interpreting words and music exactlyas written, coming up with her own freshinterpretations.
In addition to her steady stream ofrecordings, Holiday worked with the Count BasieOrchestra in 1937 and Artie Shaw's big band thefollowing year. Because she was signed to adifferent label than Basie and Shaw, those stintswent almost completely undocumented.
1939 was one of several turning points inLady Day's career. She recorded the anti-lynchingsong \Strange Fruit" and her solo career really gotunderway as she appeared regularly at CafeSociety in New York. Her recordings of 1940-42feature her more as a star rather than someonetaking her turn with other jazz musicians.
Holiday's life was far from stable in the1940s. She became a heroin addict and spentmuch of 1947 serving a one-year jail sentence.
On the brighter side, her voice was at its absolutestrongest during the decade. She made her oneHollywood film during this time (New Orleans withLouis Armstrong, 1946) and recorded definitiveversions of many of her standards. In 1944Holiday signed with the Decca label and duringthe next five years she was featured as a majorname in a variety of settings. The best of theserecordings constitute this reissue.
What Is This Thing Called Love, one of sixnumbers that have Lady Day backed by a studioorchestra headed by bassist-arranger BobHaggart, has good spots from the boppishtrumpeter Joe Guy and guitarist Tiny Grimesalong with a straightforward vocal statementfrom Holiday.
Lover Man was Lady Day's first recording forDecca and on it she fulfilled a lifetime dream bybeing backed by a string section. Lover Man wasa big hit and sold more records than any Holidayrecording. The song would be in her repertoirefrom then on. You Better Go Now is moreobscure but fits Holiday's style well. Perhaps itdid not catch on with Lady Day because it wasnot particularly autobiographical, unlike Don'tExplain. This sad and haunting ballad has lyricsby Holiday, who knew very well what the wordsmeant. Although she did not write GoodMorning Heartache, the mood is the same andone could consider it to be the morning hangoverafter Don't Explain.
Most of Billie Holiday's Decca recordingshave her accompanied by large orchestras andsome of her fans complained about thecommercial settings. Actually although thebackings are all written out, Lady Day's singingwas still pretty spontaneous and heart-felt.
Leonard Bernstein's Big Stuff, which hadpreviously been recorded unsuccessfully byHoliday with an orchestra, for this version has herjoined by a quintet with Guy, Grimes and pianistJoe Springer. The Blues Are Brewin', which wassung by Holiday in the film New Orleans, hasbacking by a sextet that includes her regularpianist Bobby Tucker and tenor-saxophonist BobDorsey. It is surprising that this memorablenumber did not catch on as a standard.
Trumpeter Billy Butterfield and clarinetist BillStegmeyer are in the group that joins Holiday onthe intriguing Deep Song and two standards thatwere not performed often by the singer throughthe years: tasteful ballad renditions of There IsNo Greater Love and Duke Ellington's Solitude.
Sy Oliver, best known for his arrangementsfor Jimmie Lunceford and Tommy Dorsey,contributed many of the charts that Holidayrecorded in 1949. Three selections have Lady Daybacked by a powerful big band as she looks backto the classic blues era and her early interest inthe music of Bessie Smith. Smith, the Empress OfThe Blues, recorded Keeps On A Rainin in 1923and Holiday's version (with Budd Johnson heardon tenor) is an effective updating. The doubleentendreDo Your Duty and Gimme A PigfootAnd A Bottle Of Beer are from Smith's lastrecord date which was cut on 24 November 1933,three days before Holiday's first record.
Lady Day's very expressive versions of I LovesYou Porgy and My Man have her joined by arhythm section (pianist Bobby Tucker, guitaristMundell Lowe, bassist John Levy and drummerDenzil Best), giving one a good idea how Holidaysounded in concert during this period.
While Lady Day could only pay tribute to thelate Bessie Smith (who died in 1937), she didhave an opportunity to record two numbers withher other idol, Louis Armstrong. You Can't LoseA Broken Heart is quite effective (it is well worthreviving) and, even if the good-humored MySweet Hunk O' Trash is not a classic, it doesexpress plenty of joy.
Both Lady Day and Gordon Jenkins' arrangementfor strings are very expressive on You're MyThrill, a song that was recorded by many singersin the 1950s. Holiday still owns the touchingCrazy He Calls Me (although Abbey Lincoln alsocut a classic version) while her version of 'Tain'tNobody's Business If I Do which was a hit forboth Bessie Smith and Jimmy Witherspoon,perfectly expresses some of her attitudes towardsthose who disapproved of her lifestyle.
Just 34 at the time of her 1949 recordings,Billie Holiday had many traumatic episodes in thefuture along with creating some excellent music.
She passed away a living legend on 17 July 1959when she was 44. While her personal lifesometimes overshadowed her music, it is thelatter that is destined to be her legacy.
- author of eight jazz books includingSwing, Jazz On Film, Bebop, Trumpet Kings and JazzOn Record 1917-76"