Our recent love for Jose James’ blistering version of Strange Fruit reminded us of just what a great song that is. It’s political but not polemical, bubbles with righteous anger, and is as important in history as “Blowing In The Wind” or “The Message”.
There is something about this kind of song that gives it something extra – something more than just a pop song and that’s something we don’t have enough of these days (and, Damon Albarn, yes that includes your canon). But, and this is crucial, it’s also a singer at the peak of her work, and a perfect, measured performance which served to remind us that Billie Holiday was a great, great singer and sometimes people forget it.
Not least by basking in the recordings from the end of her life where her fractured vocals betray a life lived hard, and are painfully emotional. We seem drawn to the image we love to project of a suffering jazz artist and sometimes that “jazz” tag means people don’t get the chance to hear her, or worse still never listen.
Billie is the definition of true soul.
So to set the record straight (and under the pretext that Billie was born 100 years ago this year) we thought we’d put together a selection of Billie’s tunes and provide you with the chance to hear sides from across her amazing career.
Some earlier sides that reflect her amazing partnership with Lester “Prez” Young and show her young undamaged voice in swing settings (loosely 1933-1941) some classic songs from her middle period when all was more or less well (loosely 1941 to her arrest for narcotics in 1949) and a couple of those fractured masterpieces that sound so painful but so much like “true soul” (1949-1958)
Strange Fruit (1939)
All Of Me (1941)
Gloomy Sunday (1941)
Me Myself & I (1944)
Good Morning Heartache (1946)
T’aint Nobody’s Bizness (1949)
God Bless the Child (1955)
Lady Sings the Blues (1956)
You’ve Changed (1958)
Here they all are in a handy chronological playlist for your listening enjoyment.
And finally, a little gem that shows what happened to the voice. Another version of Fine & Mellow from later when she and Lester Young (Prez is next to her in this shot) met again.
You can hear the change of her voice and the damage that was done by a life of sorrow and hard living in Fine & Mellow (1957)
This version benefits from the work of two of the best tenor players of all time Ben Webster & Lester Young, but the solo Young plays from 2.01 and the way Holiday answers it is evidence of how perfectly they interacted. And although at this point they had fallen out and not spoken in a while, watching her face as he plays shows that she knew what it had been worth and was sad for the lost time.
You can’t say her voice has changed all for the bad – it’s still amazing and has a deep blues about it – but it’s not the thing of joy from her early cuts.
There have been lots of artists celebrating Billie’s 100th with tributes but nothing really beats her. Or even comes close.