'Billie Holiday Sings the Blues'
Title: “Billie Holiday Sings the Blues”
Artist: Billie Holiday
Release date: 1973
Favorite track: “Swing, Brother, Swing"
I don’t spend much time listening to solo artists.
In high school, it was practically a rite of passage to spend a fair amount of time immersed in the woes of acoustic singer-songwriters — which I still save for a rainy day. And, I believe there is truly an infinite number of talented female and male vocalists.
But, now, I find myself indulging mostly in bands, sometimes featuring multiple singers. This is why it’s nice to ponder which records will honor Black History Month and stumble upon something like “Billie Holiday Sings the Blues.”
Holiday, aka Lady Day, is a wonderful jazz singer whom I’ve always placed on a pedestal next to Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald and Aretha Franklin. She also had a fascinating life, characterized by a rough upbringing, a successful music career spanning the 1940s and ‘50s and a tumultuous downfall with drugs and alcohol until her death in 1959.
One of my favorite things, though, is seeing the photos of Holiday with her dog, Mister. A canine is the ultimate companion.
“Billie Holiday Sings the Blues” is a compilation album — not to be confused with “Lady Sings the Blues,” an album Holiday released in 1956 with her autobiography.
Before I gallivant through this set of songs, I want to share that you can listen to many of them on YouTube, though not on Spotify. So, if you don’t have the vinyl record, YouTube.com is your best bet.
The opening track, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” is a popular song covered by various artists, such as Louis Armstrong, Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby. Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald have covered many of the same songs, including this one.
There is some debate surrounding who was the better vocalist between Holiday and Fitzgerald, but I don’t feel obligated to weigh in on the subject. There is room for both in my heart.
I will say, in this case, their versions are different enough to avoid a comparison.
“Swing, Brother, Swing” is a fast-paced jitter from 1937. It’s the type of jazzy jive you expect from Holiday. The lyrics tickle me, but Holiday didn’t write them.
Deep rhythm captivates me
Hot rhythms stimulate me
Can’t help but swing it boy
Swing it brothers swing
— “Swing, Brother, Swing”
“Do Nothin’ ‘Till You Hear From Me” falls on the more soothing, smooth side of jazz. I can’t imagine the dreamy euphoria of hearing Holiday sing live in a Harlem nightclub.
This music sometimes makes me feel like I was born in the wrong era. I’ve made a mental note to explore more modern jazz.
“I Cover the Waterfront” and “Lover Come Back to Me” are along the same lines. Holiday’s vocals are full of longing. It makes sense to group these together for the A-side of the record.
The B-side begins with “My Man,” a somber song about a twisted love for a man who mentally and emotionally abuses her. Again, she didn’t write this. Her vocals are so smooth in the song, I almost overlooked its darker subtext.
“Don’t Explain” is a soft, movielike conclusion that still has a somber undertone of her loving a disloyal man.
It’s difficult to deny how well sad lyrics mesh with serene, smoothing vocals.
I’ve thought about featuring this record many times.
Every time I see it amid my collection, I’m entranced with its beauty. The cover is such a lovely, feminine depiction of her voice.
My copy is also the perfect level of weathered.