#317: Lady In Satin, Billie Holiday
“Come on, Lisa! I’ve got a date with Billie Holiday!” — Bleeding Gums Murphy
My knowledge of Billie Holiday didn’t extend too far beyond that Simpsons reference before listening to this record, which isn’t very much context at all, other than I guess “jazz.” I should have expected there to be a tinge of tragedy on this record, which was released one year before her death.
The record wears you down. She takes these jazz standards and lights them on fire with a cigarette — see “I’m a Fool to Want You” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” It’s hard to listen to her sticky rasp on “I’ll Be Around” when you think about all her abusive relationships — you want to go back in time and tell her not to stick around.
RS says that Holiday “sounded weathered no matter if the song was hopeful or desolate,” but there are moments where she rises above that. Her voice flutters and trills on “For Heaven’s Sake,” and she sloshes and slurs through “I Get Along Without You Very Well.” She gives reserved improvisation on “Violets for My Furs,” and her tone is brightly reproachful on “You’ve Changed.”
That said, RS did teach me a new term: “saloon pop.” Ooh. I don’t quite know what that means but I imagine it as all hefty sighs and feather boas and miserably delivered lines about miserable situations: “For All We Know” tells us that A kiss that is never tasted/ Forever and ever is wasted; “The End of a Love Affair” adds Do they know/ Do they care/ That it’s only/ That I’m lonely?
Holiday was going for a sound inspired by Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours (#282). (The giveaway is the amount of Sinatra covers she does.) To achieve this, she hired out Ray Ellis and his orchestra to do her backing track. Her producer Irving Townsend said that Holiday “wanted that cushion under her voice. She wanted to be flattered by that kind of sound.”
All of the songs act as just that — a cushion — but my favorite musical moment was “It’s Easy to Remember,” with a bouncy little intro and furry violins. And her take on another Frank song, “Glad to Be Unhappy,” is slower, sultrier, and even more convincing that It’s a pleasure to be sad.
Producer John Hammond said of Holiday, “Her singing almost changed my music tastes and my musical life, because she was the first girl singer I’d come across who actually sang like an improvising jazz genius.”
It really is amazing that back in the Thirties, people didn’t know that a girl can sing like a genius. Billie Holiday opened the freaking door.
Best Sinatra Cover: “But Beautiful.” Love is tearful, or it’s gay/ It’s a problem or it’s play/ It’s a heartache either way. And yet…
Best Bonus Track: “The End of a Love Affair — The Audio Story” actually cracked me up. She forgets the words, yells “No good!” when she messes up. Then she tells the band to “please be as loud as you can, I don’t know the tune.” THEN she tells them they’re “too loud, I can’t hear anything!” It’s not just a story, it’s an experience.