What can purge my heartBillie Holiday would have turned 100 years old today.
Of the song
And the sadness?
What can purge my heart
But the song
Of the sadness?
What can purge my heart
Of the sadness
Of the song?
Do not speak of sorrow
With dust in her hair,
Or bits of dust in eyes
A chance wind blows there.
The sorrow that I speak of
Is dusted with despair.
Voice of muted trumpet,
Cold brass in warm air.
Bitter television blurred
By sound that shimmers–
- Langston Hughes, Song For Billie Holiday
Billie recorded her last sides with Columbia Records in late 1942. By the fall of 1943, the label had dumped her, failing to renew her contract and ending a decade-long partnership that made Columbia a lot of money and Holiday a star. Despite the mutual benefits of their business relationship, relations between Holiday and the label had been strained since 1939, when Columbia refused to let her record her then-current show-stopper during her residency at New York's Cafe Society, the anti-lynching protest song "Strange Fruit". The best the label would do was allow Holiday to record the song on Milt Gabler's Commodore Records
Gabler joined Decca Records as an A&R man in late 1941, but continued to run Commodore under a special arrangement he made with the head of Decca, Jack Kapp - as long as Commodore stuck to jazz records and didn't try to encroach into Decca's market with pop recordings, Milt was good to go. After Holiday got dropped by Columbia, she went to Gabler to see if she could record again with him on his jazz label. Milt quickly agreed, recalling the success they had with "Strange Fruit". He was looking forward to recording another half-dozen jazz singles with her over the next year.
But one night soon after their agreement, Gabler walked into the New York club where Billie was performing, and heard her belting out "Lover Man (Where Can You Be)?" He said later that he knew instantly that the song would be a smash hit, but he also knew that if he recorded it on Commodore, he would lose his job at Decca, since the tune was clearly more pop-oriented than most of Holiday's Columbia releases. In a bind, he did what he thought was the best thing for the song and Holiday's career - he convinced Decca to sign her as a pop artist.
Billie signed on with the label on August 7th, 1944, an exclusive one-year contract for a minimum of twelve sides, with an additional one-year extension option by the label. Holiday got plenty in return for this contract. At that time, Decca was the only major label still producing commercial recordings (In 1942, the American Federation of Musicians, led by their union president James Petrillo, had gone on strike against all of the other major American labels over royalty payments - the final label holdouts, RCA Victor and Columbia, didn't settle with the union until late 1944). In addition, for the first time Billie Holiday was treated as an artist of stature; the symbol of that stature was something that few recording artists at the time were provided - for her first sessions at Decca on October 4th, 1944, Holiday was backed by a full string ensemble. She was so overwhelmed with joy by the sight of them when she walked into the studio that day that she immediately walked out to compose herself. "Lover Man" was the first side she and her new label cut.
Holiday had several recording sessions with Decca from late 1944 to early 1947, recording mostly torch songs and pop standards that were very well received. By 1947, she was one of the most popular and celebrated recording artists in America, with an income from royalties (for the first time in her career, Holiday would receive royalties for her recordings with Decca) exceeding $100,000 in 1946. However, in May 1947, Billie was busted for narcotics possession in New York City. The trial shortly thereafter was a farce - she was sick and dehydrated, and discovered as she stumbled into the courtroom that the attorney she hired to represent her had abandoned her. Even the prosecuting attorney came to her defense. Even so, Holiday was sentenced to a year in federal prison in West Virginia.
When Billie was released from prison in early 1948, she and others were worried that her career was over. Her manager arranged a comeback concert for her at New York's Carnegie Hall, but no one was sure if people would turn out to hear a convicted drug felon who hadn't had a huge hit since "Lover Man" more than two years earlier. But the Carnegie Hall concert,
I purchased this set at the same time I bought Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933-1944, at the record store in Newark, Delaware all those years ago. Some music critics have tended to disparage Holiday's Decca output, considering her body of work there syrupy and lacking the power or nuance of her jazz and blues recordings with Columbia. But I tend to disagree. The Decca recordings show a different, more accessible side of Holiday's artistry, and prove that she was strikingly adept at more than one genre of music. Several of her Decca tunes, including the aforementioned "Lover Man", "Good Morning Heartache", "Big Stuff", and "You Better Go Now", are just as classic and celebrated today as her Columbia sides.
In all of her recordings, Billie Holiday imparted the joy, heartbreak, elation and sadness of love and life, and found ways to express the inexpressible, time and time again. She remains a towering figure in popular music.
Billie Holiday’s burned voiceHere, on the centennial of the birth of the great Billie Holiday, one of my all-time favorite artists, I proudly offer to you The Complete Decca Recordings, released October 1st, 1991 by Decca Records, a two-disc set containing all fifty sides and alternate takes of songs she recorded with the label from 1944 to 1950. Have a listen and remember this great lady. And as always, let me know what you think.
had as many shadows as lights,
a mournful candelabra against a sleek piano,
the gardenia her signature under that ruined face.
(Now you’re cooking, drummer to bass,
magic spoon, magic needle.
Take all day if you have to
with your mirror and your bracelet of song.)
Fact is, the invention of women under siege
has been to sharpen love in the service of myth.
If you can’t be free, be a mystery.
- Rita Dove, Canary
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