“If I’m going to sing like someone else, then I don’t need to sing at all.” – Billie Holiday
Why is Billie Holiday still considered as one of the greatest jazz voices of all time? Throughout her career and during the decades after her death, she has inspired some of the best vocalists of our time, including Frank Sinatra who stated, “It is Billie Holiday, whom I first heard in 52nd Street clubs in the 1930s, who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence.”
In conversation with NPR, Joni Mitchell revealed that along with Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday was her other major inspiration. “Many of the so-called great singers love their notes more than their text and those women never forgot what they were singing about, so that the note almost played second position to the text. Not that there was anything wrong with the chosen notes. There was still beauty to them, but the emphasis was on telling the story from the heart.” And along with Sarah Vaughn, the freedom of Holiday’s phrasing was evident in one of modern day’s greatest chanteuses, Amy Winehouse.
Billie Holiday had a distinct signature style that transformed a song into a personal story that was convincing and believable. As Billie once said, “I hate straight singing. I have to change a tune to my own way of doing it. That’s all I know.” She brought her own story into her music.
And her personal story was tragic as she started working when she was six, moved to Harlem with her mother who worked as a prostitute, scrubbing floors in a whorehouse, and an attempted rape at the age of 14. It was her music that got her through this and as a teenager she would hop from jazz club to jazz club singing for tips. She hadn’t had any technical musical training, nor could she read music, but hen Columbia Records legendary A&R man heard her sing in Harlem at the age of 17, he quickly signed her up saying, “She was the first girl singer I’d come across who actually sang like an improvising jazz genius.”
Soonafter, Billie became a star, recording hits like ‘Riffin’ the Scotch’, ‘What A Little Moonlight Can Do’, ‘Summertime’, ‘I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm’ and ‘God Bless the Child’. She worked with some of the great bandleaders including Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Teddy Wilson and was the first black woman to sing with a white orchestra when she toured with Artie Shaw.
In 1939, she recorded a poem about the lynchings of African-Americans written by a Jewish schoolteacher from The Bronx called ‘Strange Fruit’. It was so controversial, Columbia Records didn’t allow her to record it. Instead, she used the pet name give to her by her friend Lester Young and recorded it as Lady Day for Commodore Records. It became one of her biggest hits and marked a turning point in her repertoire as she began to record more signature ballads.
Throughout her career, she worked with many record labels including Decca and later with Clef which was absorbed into Verve Records. While signed to Verve in the 1950’s, she re-recorded many songs that had already been in her repertoire but she wasn’t happy and went back to her original label after a 16-year gap. When she signed back with Columbia Records, the label wanted her to record songs she had never performed before so she once again returned to the Great American Songbook. From her standpoint, Billie didn’t want to record with the small jazz combos she had worked with on Verve but instead wanted the full orchestral arrangements she had enjoyed during her stint with Decca.
At first she wanted to record with Frank Sinatra’s arranger Nelson Riddle as she was a fan of Sinatra’s album In the Wee Small Hours. But then she surprised everybody when she requested Ray Ellis. Up to this point Ellis had a track record of easy listening hits with The Drifters and Johnny Mathis and the schmaltzy ‘Rock Pretty Baby’ with child singer Baby Ivy Schulman. Later in his career he recorded a lot of commercial work including scores for game shows. But Billie was impressed with his rendition of ‘For All We Know’ from his 1957 album with his orchestra Ellis in Wonderland.
Her producer, Columbia’s Irving Townsend, couldn’t believe an artist of her calibre wanted this guy and recounted in Julia Blackburn’s book With Billie, “It would be like Ella Fitzgerald saying that she wanted to record with Ray Conniff.” Even Ellis was also surprised saying, “I couldn’t believe it…I didn’t know she was aware of me.”
But according to Townsend, “She wanted a pretty album, something delicate. She said this over and over. She thought it would be beautiful. She wasn’t interested in some wild swinging jam session…She wanted that cushion under her voice. She wanted to be flattered by that kind of sound.” And that is what they got.
Lady in Satin is now considered one of Billie Holiday’s greatest albums. She may have lost much of her upper range due to heroin addiction, but her delivery is infused with her experience both tragic with its abusive relationships, prison stints and drug addiction, and triumphant with her musical success. During the record sessions she drank her vodka neat, but still managed to infuse immense feeling into ‘You’ve Changed’ and ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well’.
Ellis tried to match his arrangements to her late raspy voice and used it in her favour. In his words, “I heard her voice [and] I dug it. I was in love with that voice and I was picturing a very evil, sensuous, sultry, very evil…probably one of the most evil voices I’ve heard in my life…Evil is earthy to me. When you say someone is evil, it means very, very bad. I don’t mean bad.”
Some critics at the time felt the arrangements were overdone and preferred her earlier work. However, for others this album was a career high point. Trumpeter Buck Clayton recalled, “The most emotional moment was her listening to the playback of “I’m a Fool to Want You”. There were tears in her eyes…After we finished the album I went into the control room and listened to all the takes. I must admit I was unhappy with her performance, but I was just listening musically instead of emotionally. It wasn’t until I heard the final mix a few weeks later that I realized how great her performance really was.”