Billie Holiday turned 29 in 1944. It must have been a happy year for her. After an impoverished childhood any many years spend paying dues. She was at last a headliner with a choice of lucrative engagements. She was healthy, her singing voice was at a peak of exquisite beauty, and her excellence was finally receiving recognition: she garnered her first jazz critics' poll victory, Esquire Magazine's "Gold Award" for best female vocalist of 1944. After long residencies at New York's Cafe Society in 1939 and in the early forties, and with the release of her first hit record in 1939 ("Strange Fruit" backed with "Fine and Mellow"), she was beginning to become famous, though hers was not yet a household name.
It is puzzling that the recognition was belated. In the nine years between her first studio recording in 1933 and the recording ban waged against the major record companies by the American Federation of Musicians in 1942, Billie had recorded some 159 sides in the studio (not counting the numerous alternate takes that have turned up in the years since), many of them enduring classics. Unschooled though she may have been, she nevertheless created a truly innovative style that became so widely imitated that it is sometimes difficult for contemporary listeners to divine just how revolutionary she was.
Billie described her approach in the book Hear Me Talkin' To Ya simply - "I don't think I'm singing. I feel like I am playing a horn. I try to improvise like Les Young, like Louis Armstrong, or someone else I admire. What comes out is what I feel. I hate straight singing. I have to change a tune to my own way of doing it. That's all I know." In her autobiography Lady Sings The Blues, Billie added that "I always wanted Bessie's big sound and Pop's feeling. [She refers, of course, to Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.] Young kids always ask me what my style is derived from and how it evolved and all that. What can I tell them? If you find a tune and it's got something to do with you, you don't have to evolve anything. You just feel it, and when you sing it other people can feel something too. With me, it's got nothing to do with working or arranging or rehearsing. Give me a song I can feel, and it's never work."
Had she been less modest, she might have added that she possessed nuances of timing and swing and an extraordinary talent for reconstructing melodies by improvising new harmonies equal to that displayed by the greatest jazz instrumentalists. She never resorted to the affected vocal mannerisms that almost every vocalist before her had to some degree displayed. Writer Gene Lees summarized another important difference in style between Billie and her predecessors: she was "conversational" rather that oratorical. She understood the emotional content of her songs and communicated it convincingly and cleanly." These abilities, together with her wondrous singing voice, clear diction, artful phrasing, and impeccable taste, enabled her to impart a vitality, emotional warmth and conviction to the words and subtext of a lyric that is deeply felt by listeners. As many have said, she sang each line as though she had lived it. Small wonder then, that no audience went unaffected, and her influence on other singers has been so profound. But she did not acknowledge her genius to herself, much less to others. Bobby Tucker, her regular piano accompanist from 1946 to 1949, recalled in Hear Me Talkin' To Ya: "There's one thing about Lady you won't believe. She has the most terrible inferiority complex. She actually doesn't believe she can sing..."
Among those who knew Billie really could sing was Milt Gabler, who recorded her for his own Commodore label in 1939, and again in the spring of 1944. Besides producing for his own limited distribution jazz label, Gabler had, since 1941, been an A&R man for Decca Records. As Gabler recalls in the accompanying interview with Andy McKay, his agreement with Decca allowed him to continue to record jazz for Commodore, but not pop hits. When he walked into a club on 52nd Street (he thinks it was the Band Box) where Billie was working one night in mid 1944, he heard her sing "Lover Man" and said to himself "Smash hit, I've got to record that."
His next thought was to sign, Billie remembered it somewhat differently. In her auto biography, Lady Sings The Blues she wrote, "I loved it ["Lover Man"] and wanted to record it... I took the song to Milt Gabler at Decca and I went on my knees to him, I loved it so. I begged Milt and told him I had to have strings behind me..." Whose story comes closest to the truth is of no real consequence: the important thing is that Blllie signed a contract with Decca Records on August 7th, 1944 that called on her to record, exclusively for Decca, a minimum of twelve selections over a one-year period, with an option to extend the contract for an additional year should Decca so wish. By any measure, the decision was a wise one for the artist. She was now under contract to the only major label still recording commercially. (The musician's union was still on strike against RCA Victor and Billie's former label, Columbia.) Decca could afford to commission arrangements and hire an orchestra to give her the backing she wanted. For the first time in her life, she would receive royalties on the sales of her records. And in Milt Gabler, she had found a producer who would support and promote her interests.
Salvador C. "Toots" Camarata, an alumnus of the Jimmy Dorsey band's reed section who had recently been named Decca's musical director, was chosen to arrange and conduct Billie's first Decca session. It took place on October 4, 1944. Recalling the date, Camarata recently said: "She came into the studio, turned around and walked right out! I went after her and asked her what was wrong. She said, "Oh man, these strings hit me pretty hard."
Few singers of the time were allowed to record or broadcast with strings - Crosby, Sinatra, and a handful of others. It was a symbol of ultimate stardom, and although she had asked for strings, Billie was overwhelmed by the reality of their presence.
Camarata: "I said, 'Well, look, let's go downstairs - there's a bar across the street.' We got a bottle of cherry brandy, went back up and made 'Lover Man' and 'No More.' The date went quite smoothly as I recall."
"Lover Man" had been written for Billie by a young soldier named Jimmy Davis. (Jimmy Sherman and "Ram" Ramirez shared credit on the song's 1941 copyright, but in her autobiography, Billie insists that Davis had done most or all of the writing.) Billie's masterful performance made this the definitive recording of a song that would become not only a featured part of her stage repertoire, but a standard. "No More," which Camarata and lyricist Bob Russell had written for Billie, completed the date, and in 1952, when Billie was asked to select her three favorites among her own recordings, she chose "No More," "Fine And Mellow" (recorded for Commodore in 1939), and "Gloomy Sunday" (recorded for Columbia's OKeh label in 1941).
(Two takes of "No More" are presented in this collection. Besides the difference in tempo, the listener will notice the difference in the quality of the sound: our only source of the rare take of "No More" was a tape many generations and reprocessings removed from the original.)
Billie returned to Decca's studio a few weeks after the "Lover Man" session for another date, her accompaniment again directed by Toots Camarata. Three songs were waxed. "That Ole Devil Called Love" was composed by Allan Roberts and Doris Fisher, who were staff writers for a Decca publishing affiliate, according to Milt Gabler.
Billie wrote "Don't Explain" after Jimmy Monroe, her husband in the early and middle forties, came home one night with another woman's lipstick on his collar. As Billie recounted, "I saw the lipstick. He saw I saw it and he started explaining and explaining. I could stand anything but that. Lying to me was worse than anything he could have done with any bitch. I cut him off, just like that. "Take a bath, man," I said, "don't explain."
The words "don't explain, don't explain," kept going through my damn head. I had to get it out of my system some way, I guess. The more I thought about it, it changed from an ugly scene to a sad song. Soon I was singing phrases to myself. Suddenly I had a whole song. I went downtown one night and sat down with Arthur Herzog; he played the tune over on the piano, wrote down the words, changing two or three phrases, softening it up just a little." The result was another enduring standard. Two versions of the song are presented here.
The first version is a rarity - it has been issued just once before, in the late 1970s on an out-of-print German LP. There are substantial differences between the two versions, both in tempo (the second version is twenty-eight seconds slower) and in the lyrics. Some of the lines used in the first version but not the second (i.e., the second phrase in the first stanza, "I know you raise Cain," and the second phrase of the second stanza, "You mix with some dame") were resurrected in some of Billie's subsequent public performances.
"Big Stuff" was written by Leonard Bernstein as the musical prologue for the American Ballet Theater's production of Fancy Free. This was the first musical to feature a Bernstein score, and it was the first collaboration between Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins. (They would later reunite for On the Town and West Side Story.) Decca planned to release selections from the score as a fourpocket 78 rpm album, and had the American Ballet Theater record (on June 2, 1944) all but the prologue, which was reserved for Billie Holiday. Getting an issuable performance would seem to have been a problem, however, as Billie would be called on to record it at four different sessions over a period of sixteen months. The reason for rejecting this first version is readily apparent - the last line of lyrics was clearly inappropriate for Billie or any other female singer. Substitute lyrics were devised for the remake versions. (The eight sides from Fancy Free, together with six from On the Town, are currently available on MCAD-10280, Selections from Fancy Free and On the Town.
Nine months passed before Billie returned to Decca's studio. In the interim, she played engagements at the Spotlite Club in New York and did some extensive touring. And she had found a new love, trumpeter Joe Guy, whose bop-inflected playing would grace her next four dates for Decca. In the year since signing her first contract with Decca, Billie had recorded just five tunes, and only one pairing -"Lover Man"/"That Ole Devil Called Love"- had been released. Nonetheless, the option to renew Billie's contract for an additional year was exercised.
Bassist Bob Haggart, best known as a founder member and seven-year veteran of Bob Crosby's band, was chosen to direct Billie's session of August 14, 1945. Remakes of "Don't Explain" and "Big Stuff" were waxed that pretty much followed Camarata's arrangements from the preceding session, the biggest difference being that the tempi were slowed considerably. ("Big Stuff was again rejected; Milt Gabler recalls that Leonard Bernstein didn't approve of the way Billie interjected a note that was not in his score.)
"You Better Go Now" was written by Robert Graham and Bickley Reichner for a 1936 musical called New Faces. Billie had heard Mabel Mercer sing the tune and immediately loved it. Arranged by Bob Haggart, Billie's rendition is a classic, and turned this nearly forgotten tune into a standard.
(Sarah Vaughan has cited it as her favorite of Billie's records.) Another standard, Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love?" which dates from 1929, finished the session with a feeling of relaxed swing. The chart is by Haggart, the guitar solo by a former member of the Art Tatum Trio, Tiny Grimes. For those who participated on the date, recording with Billie wasn't the only memorable event of that day: an hour and fifteen minutes after the session finished, President Truman went on the air to announce that Japan had agreed to surrender unconditionally. It was V-J Day.
Billie took to the road a week or so later, accompanied by her own orchestra led by Joe Guy. Most of their dates were in the South, and by year's end they returned to New York to disband - bookings were too few and far between to sustain the group. Billie began a long engagement at the Downbeat Club on 52nd Street, accompanied by Joe Guy and a four-man rhythm section that included Joe Springer, who would appear on Billie's next three recording sessions. He had been her regular pianist since 1944.
On January 22, 1946, Billie cut three numbers for Decca with a band directed by reedman Bill Stegmeyer. Two of the songs, "Good Morning Heartache" and "No Good Man" are stunning marriages of poetry and melody written expressly for Billie by her close friend Irene Higginbotham, the former Mrs. Teddy Wilson whose song "Some Other Spring." had been recorded by Billie in 1939. (An alternative take of "No Good Man" is issued here for the first time.) The third number made that day was, once again. "Big Stuff. This rendition isn't listed in any discography, and its existence was completely unexpected: the complete version and the breakdown that precedes it turned up as 'bonus' tracks on the acetate safety disc for "No Good Man".
The next Decca session took place seven weeks later. Only one tune was attempted - her nemesis, "Big Stuff". Three and a half hours after the session started, Billie and a quintet managed to cut a master that was actually accepted. It must have been a relief to all concerned.
Billie recorded two songs on April 9, 1946, and a pair of similar takes are presented of each. The sassy "Baby, I Don't Cry Over You" was written by Morton Krouse and published by one of Decca's companies, Northern Music Corporation. "I'll Look Around" was written for Billie by two young men named George Cory and Douglass Cross. Both feature exceptional guitar work by the underrated Jimmy Shirley.
Decca did not schedule another session with Billie for nine and a half months, but did take the opportunity to sign her to a new contract. (Dated August 19, 1946, it called for sixteen selections to be recorded over two years.) During most of this period, Billie worked at the Downbeat, but took time off in the fall to go to Hollywood where she and Louis Armstrong appeared in the feature film New Orleans. While Billie was less than thrilled with the housemaid part she was assigned, she was given the opportunity to sing on camera and soundtrack.
Returning to New York in late 1946, she resumed her job at the Downbeat where she was to alternate with pianist Eddie Heywood's band. They had played behind her in other club appearances and had even recorded with her for Commodore. However, Heywood had become famous on the strength of a hit record, "Begin The Beguine," and he and his management didn't think that playing accompaniment for Billie would be a wise career choice. Billie was told the bad news on her opening night. Apart from the hurt and anger it caused her, left her in a bind. It was nearly show time, and she needed a piano player in a hurry. Clarinetist who knew what had happened, chanced to see an old friend walking down 52nd Street, pianist Bobby Tucker, who was immediately drafted. Fortunately, Tucker knew the repertoire (he had grown up on Billie's records with Teddy Wilson), and was soon offered a regular job with Billie. He stayed with her until early 1949, and they would remain life-long, close friends.
When she returned to Decca's studio on December 27, 1946, it was with Bobby Tucker and five other musicians. The band was directed by bassist John Simmons. Tucker remembers that the two pieces recorded that day were arranged by Teddy Brannon. The first was a marvelous rendering of "The Blues are Brewin" by Louis Alter and Eddie deLange, which Billie had first sung in the film New Orleans. The other was a 1931 torch song by Gus Kahn, Harry Akst and Richard Whiting, "Guilty," which had originally been a hit for Ruth Etting.
Tucker recalls that the tune was picked by Milt Gabler. Two complete takes and a breakdown were recorded, each with a different tempo and feel. After the breakdown, a voice is heard asking Billie about the tempo: it is Milt Gables's.
While Decca's files state that the Billie's next session took place between 2:00 and 5:10 on the afternoon of February 13, 1947, Bobby Tucker remembers it differently. In 1973, he wrote: "I had gone to wake her up about 10:30 and the date was 12:00, and I couldn't get her to the studio until around 2:30.
The orchestra had been rehearsing, and the soundmen had the balance correct and they were figuring, 'Well, this one is on the house.' But Lady came in, and we were through at ten minutes to three. And I don't think we did a double take on any of them. I think every one of the songs were one-takes.
The orchestra was in good shape. But the amazing part is that she could come in and capture the feeling of the lyric and the melody of the song in a cold studio, and when the records were released, the public felt her sincerity."
Four tunes were recorded that afternoon, Bob Haggart directed the ten-piece band, and Tucker recalls that Haggart had written the charts as well. The session started with the darkly evocative "Deep Song," written for Billie by George Cory and Douglass Cross. It was followed by a standard from 1936 that Billie had been singing at the Downbeat, Isham Jones's "There Is No Greater Love". Haggart was impressed with Billie's treatment. As he told John Chilton, "The release to the tune... is an excellent example of how Billie, could take a standard tune and add her Midas touch to the existing melody - giving the song a whole new value." Billie had first recorded "Easy Living" for Brunswick in 1937, accompanied by a pick-up band led by Teddy Wilson that also included Basieites Buck Clayton and Lester Young. Both versions are classics. The first recording is taken at a quicker tempo, and Clayton's fills behind Billie's vocal are a model of tasteful support. The tempo of the Decca version is better for Billie. Her manner and phrasing has greater self-assurance, the nuances are more subtle, and she is more relaxed. And her voice? At the peak of its beauty.
The session finished with "Solitude," a lovely melody that Duke Ellington hurriedly wrote in a recording studio on a winter afternoon in 1934. It is another tune that Billie had previously recorded (for OKeh in 1941). Comparing the two Decca takes reveals subtle differences in Billie's approach - she sings further behind the beat on the first take, which is issued here for the first time.
Twenty-two months would pass before Billie recorded again. New York's nightclubs were experiencing a downturn, and the Downbeat was forced to close shortly after "Solitude" was recorded. With a clear calendar, Billie decided it was time to face up to something she had allowed to become a serious problem, drug abuse.
She had started by smoking opium in the early forties, and had progressed to heroin, abetted by her estranged husband, Jimmy Monroe, and her current boyfriend, Joe Guy. Billie's manager, Joe Glaser, arranged for her to enter a New York clinic for a three-week stay, where she underwent a "cold turkey" cure.
Following her release, she went back to playing clubs, and soon resumed using heroin. Although her stay in the clinic was not publicized, it had become common knowledge, and narcotics agents began to watch her closely. After a week's engagement at Philadelphia's Earle Theater came to an end on May 16, 1947, her chauffeur drove her back to her hotel, where they noticed a lot of police activity. Billie smelled a raid. Somehow (she later gave conflicting accounts), she was able to escape over the border into New Jersey, with police bullets in the fender of the car. The story would be front page news.
A few days later, police raided the New York hotel room she shared with Joe Guy (their relationship would shortly end) and arrested them both. They were charged with possession of narcotics, which had been found in the Philadelphia hotel room of their road manager. Freed on bail, Billie went back to work at New York's Club 18, but she couldn't stand the suffocatingly close police surveillance to which she was subjected. She wanted the ordeal to end quickly. Her manager, Joe Glaser, talked her into phoning the Philadelphia authorities to request the earliest possible court date; they told her to come in that very day.
The trial began that afternoon. Unrepresented by counsel, she asked to address the court. She pleaded guilty, told the judge she was broke, and asked to be committed to a hospital where she could be cured of her addiction. The judge responded by sentencing her to a year and a day in the Federal Reformatory for Women at Alderson, West Virginia. The trial had begun at 4:00; by 8:00, she was on a train for Alderson, escorted by two matrons. Had an attorney represented her, she would probably have walked free. Instead, she would undergo another "cold turkey" cure ("nineteen days of sheer hell," she described it), followed by long months under hard regimen in an atmosphere of Jim Crow.
Upon early release for "good behavior" on March 16, 1948, she was thirty pounds heavier and in far better health than when sentenced. Billie took a train to Newark, where she was met at the station by Bobby Tucker, who drove her to his mother's farm near Morristown, New Jersey, where she could unwind and catch her bearings.
She had not sung a note during her time at Alderson, and was worried that her voice might have changed. The first thing she and Bobby did at Morristown was to try it out on "Night And Day," which Billie said was "the toughest song in the world for me to sing. I'll never forget that first note, or the second. Or especially the third one, when I had to hit 'day' and hold it. I hit it and held it and it sounded better than ever. Bobby almost fell off the [piano] stool, he was so happy."
Because Billie was now a convicted felon, the New York Police Department refused to issue her a cabaret card, which was legally required of anyone working in a New York City club that served liquor. This would prohibit her from working in virtually every jazz club in New York City for the rest of her life, and was a serious blow to her career. (The regulation was finally repealed by Mayor John Lindsay in 1967, eight years after Billie's death.)
Billie was warmly received when she gave a concert at Carnegie Hall eleven days after her release. She appeared at some theaters in New York (and even one nightclub, The Club Ebony; somehow the owners managed to get the police to waive the rules), Philadelphia, Washington and Chicago, and was back in New York on December 10, 1948 for a session at Decca.
(Had it been able to do so, Decca would probably have called her into the studio shortly after her March release, but another strike by the musician's union against the record companies had been underway since the first of the year.)
Bobby Tucker says the first two songs cut that day, Gordon Jenkins's "Weep No More," and Ralph Blane's "Girls Were Made to Take Care of Boys" were not part of Billie's usual repertoire. The choral accompaniment is provided by "The Stardusters," whose personnel is something of a mystery. After finishing, guitarist Mundell Lowe and The Stardusters were excused, and two additional tunes were made, "as an afterthought," Tucker notes. Though the songs would enter her regular repertoire, Tucker says that he had never before played "Porgy" or "My Man" with Billie. They simply improvised the routines in the studio. "I Loves You, Porgy" was written by George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward for their 1935 musical Porgy and Bess, and is completely restructured by Billie. As originally written, the song was a duet between Porgy and Bess. Billie sings only Bess's stanzas, and changes their sequence. The first stanza is discarded, as are the Aunt Jemimaisms ("I loves you. Porgy," "I wants to stay with you," etc.). Billie's phrasing and timing are miraculous, and the performance is stunning.
"My Man," a song from France, was first translated into English in 1921, and Fanny Brice had turned it into an American standard. Billie had recorded "My Man" once before, for Brunswick in 1937. That version was taken at a quick and bouncy tempo unsuited to the poetry of the lyrics. Billie gives this 1948 version a completely different treatment. The verse is discarded and the tempo halved.
Once again, her phrasing and timing are miraculous. And what depths of despair and hope she conveys! She sings the song as f she had hued 1t, and considering the succession of unhappy relationships she experienced, she probably had; yet it's obvious she always held onto the hope that happiness would come her way someday.
That this song reflected her feelings is apparent by the phrase she chose to end her autobiography: "Tired? You bet. But all that I'll soon forget with my man..."
"My Man" was recorded twice that day, and the first take is released here for the first time. I had long considered the issued version one of the most affecting musical performances I had ever heard; the new take is even more moving, as if that were possible.
Five days after recording "My Man," Billie traveled to the West Coast, where she spent most of the first half of 1949. On January 22nd, she was again arrested for possession of narcotics. The trial jury would believe her story that the narcotics seized -opium- actually belonged to her new boyfriend and manager, John Levy, and she was acquitted. It was yet another traumatic experience for Billie, who had managed to stay clean since Alderson. She returned to New York in the summer of 1949 to play the Apollo Theater.
Between August 17 and October 19, 1949, she taped thirteen titles for Decca at five different sessions. The first date reunited her with old friends Buck Clayton and Lester Young (the "unholy three" as they used to call themselves in the late 1930s). "Tain't Nobody's Business If I Do" was made famous by Bessie Smith in 1923, and Billie's treatment is simply brash. Listeners familiar with Billie's well-publicized troubles considered it her anthem, and she frequently used it in her stage shows. Two takes survive, the first of which is issued here for the first time. "Baby Get Lost" is a sassy tune from the pen of Leonard Feather, who wrote it under the name of his good friend, composer-arranger Billy Moore, Jr., to circumvent the resistance of certain A&R men (not including Gabler) and rival reviewers who might ignore or disparage any tune bearing the name of a critic.
Spencer Williams' "Keeps On A-Rainin'" was the flip side of Bessie Smith's 1923 record of "Tain't Nobody's Business If I Do." (This is one of four songs Billie recorded for Decca from Bessie Smith's songbook. Some writers have contended that Decca planned to issue a whole album of Billie singing Bessie, but Milt Gabler says that's not true.) "Them There Eyes," a 1930 Maceo Pinkard tune, is one that Billie had first cut for Vocalion in 1939. Her first interpretation is a definition of hipness, while this one leans more to the flirtatious. The arrangements are by Sy Oliver, who worked as a staff arranger for Decca between 1947 and 1961, and they "sparkle and bubble," as the lyric has it.
Bessie Smith's last sides, written for her by Wesley "Sox" Wilson, were waxed in 1933, just three days before Billie's first record date. By coincidence (actually, more by design), both sessions were produced by the young John Hammond. Two of the four tunes that Bessie made at that session, "Do Your Duty" and "Gimme A Pigfoot And A Bottle Of Beer," are covered here by Billie. (Billie's session was directed by Sy Oliver. After listening to the two titles, Lil [Mrs. Sy] Oliver, concludes that the arrangements are by somebody other than Sy, but Milt Gabler disagrees.) Close listening to the 1933 and 1949 renderings of "Pigfoot" shows how times had changed. "Shim Sham Shimmy" is replaced by "Oo-Bop-a- Dop." And whatever happened to the line Bessie sang about reefers?
Billie had two musical idols in her youth. Bessie Smith was one, and Louis Armstrong the other. Louis and Billie were teamed up on Sy Oliver arrangements of two songs that James P. Johnson and Flournoy Miller had written for a contemporary musical called Sugar Hill - "You Can't Lose A Broken Heart" and "My Sweet Hunk O'Trash." The latter title features some spontaneous Armstrong banter behind Billie's vocal, including the four-letter "F" word. I've been told (by Brooks Kerr who heard it from Singsi [Mrs. Billy] Kyle), that about a month after the disc was released, Walter Winchell complained about the dirty word in his column, which forced Decca to withdraw the record, and put out a sanitized version: an inserted syllable changed "F- `em, baby" to "How come, baby. " The unexpurgated version is offered here. The session concluded with "Now Or Never." an R&B-tinged up-tempo Billie original. Unfortunately, the rasp that would be evident in Billie's singing voice for the rest of her life began to creep in.
The rasp is absent from her next date, where she is backed by an orchestra arranged and directed by Gordon Jenkins. The standouts are "Crazy He Calls Me" and a Billie original, "Somebody's On My Mind". This session marked the last time that she and Milt Gabler would work together. Gabler was about to be shifted to head Decca's subsidiary Coral, where he would no longer be in a position to work with Billie. She would be dropped from Decca after one final session.
It took place in Hollywood on March 8, 1950. Gordon Jenkins arranged and directed. Billie had written "God Bless The Child" with Arthur Herzog, Jr. in 1941, and made a superior recording of it for Vocalion the same year. There is a story behind the song: Billie's mother had always wanted to run a restaurant, and Billie gave her much of the money that she needed to start and maintain it. One day, Billie found herself short of cash, so she showed up at "Mom Holiday's" to ask her mother for some. "Mom turned me down flat." Billie recalled in Lady Sings The Blues. "She wouldn't give me a cent. She was mad with me and I was mad with her. We exchanged a few words.
Then I said, 'God bless the child that's got his own,' and walked out. I stayed sore for three weeks. I thought about it and thought about it. One day a whole damn song fell into place in my head.
Then I rushed down to the Village that night and met Arthur Herzog. He sat down at a piano and picked it out, phrase by phrase, as I sang it to him."
I have to agree with the assessment Will Friedwald makes of this version of "God Bless The Child" in his book Jazz Singing: "Not a religious song but a song about religion that's both sacred and profane, it describes, in poetically abstract fashion, how man's knowledge of God has no effect on his treatment of other men. Arranger Gordon Jenkins either thought it was a hymn or, knowing of his formidable (if not always well-applied) smarts, wanted you to think he thought it was a hymn, for in addition to backing her with a bleached out Protestant choir, he put the ersatzsacral "This Is Heaven To Me" on the disc's B side."
Billie's association with Decca lasted five and a half years, and took her from the age of 29 and a half, to one month shy of her thirty-fifth birthday. During these years, she recorded mostly slow ballads, including some of her most renowned performances.
Curiously, her body of work from these years has sometimes been judged as of lesser quality than her 1930s output. This view tends to overlook the different circumstances of her career during these two periods. In the 1930s, before she was an established star, Billie often took part on record dates in a supporting role as one among several featured artists. She was not the only participant to be given solo space - and the interaction between her and the celebrated jazz players present on many of those records did much to make them great.
In the 1940's, with her stardom attained, the relationship between Billie and the sidemen changed; she would be the most important focus of attention, while the instrumentalists would play a supporting role in arrangements designed to complement her voice like a velvet background that draws the eye to a gem placed upon it.
Other vocal stars of the era were afforded this manner of accompaniment, Billie wanted it for her own recordings, and Milt Gabler saw to it that she got it. To underrate Billie's Decca work on the basis of dissatisfaction with the accompaniment obscures the point. The most important basis for evaluating Billie's work from the two periods must be her own level of performance.
Listen to "Lover Man," "Don't Explain," "Good Morning Heartache," "Easy Living," or "My Man." Here is Billie Holiday at the peak of her voice and artistry. Her ability to communicate through song is simply magical.By: STEVEN LASKER, April 1991