Tag Archives: billie holiday

Acclaimed Albums – Lady In Satin by Billie Holiday

Like I mentioned with the switch over to the Top 1000 list, there are a number of older albums that I listened to as part of a previous blog. This was back in 2009 … and I think my views on music have changed somewhat. Or maybe not, but hey it’s good to keep crossing these off so for these three weeks will be playing a game of catch-up.

List item: Listen to the 1000 Most Acclaimed Albums
Progress: 296/1000
Title: Lady In Satin
Artist: Billie Holiday
Year: 1958

While it is great relief for me to have finally reached an album where female vocals take the centre stage it is in a way a bit double-edged. The thing with Billie Holiday is that even though in her hay-day she never had the most powerful of voices her trump card was always the emotion she was able to convey. It is for this reason that she has been remembered and why her recordings of ‘Strange Fruit’ and ‘Gloomy Sunday’ (a song that urban legend has linked to multiple cases of suicide) live on in infamy.

Her life was, by any standards, a troubled and highly turbulent one. Raised in poverty, raped at a young age and working in the brothels until the early thirties when her voice caught the attention of a promoter. Even with all that behind her she came to be highly dependent on drugs and alcohol, and really you can not blame her for succumbing to them.

Anyway, back from the ramble about musical history it is time to attend to the matter at hand. Namely Lady In Satin and my thoughts regarding it. The first thing that I believe needs to be said is that it is anything but an easy listen. Due to years of substance abuse this 43 year old woman sounds old beyond her years with her voice being reduced to a reedy state. However, where most artists would probably count their losses she ploughs on through and gives possibly the most emotional set of recordings you could find. You just believe everything she says, this woman whose voice, and body, had been reduced to one belonging to a woman beyond her years. You feel her pain.

This is definitely the most disarming thing about Lady In Satin and reflects the lyrics that she wrote back in the late forties:

Lady sings the blues
She’s got them bad
She feels so sad
Wants the world to know
Just what the blues is all about

With the rating I know I am about to give this album it feels stupid to outline a few of the tracks as highlights when the whole thing needs to be taken in one fair dose. However I would like to specifically mention the opener ‘I’m A Fool To Want You’ as well as ‘Violets For My Furs’, which occupies the midpoint. Both of these are the prime example of the use of this broken blues-soaked voice that is backed by sweeping orchestral movements which together give her the space to truly soar.

1001 Songs – 1954 – 1955

List Item:  Listen to the 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die

Riot in Cell Block No. 9 – The Robins (1954)

Okay, so the subject matter is pretty self-explanatory. There’s a riot in the prison and things escalate pretty damned quickly. Thing is, no matter how bleak this riot became I kept expecting a shirtless man to appear drinking Diet Coke and for Etta James to chime in about how she wants to be made love to. I might have missed the point with this one…

Love for Sale – Billie Holiday (1954)

Another song from Billie Holiday, her voice has clearly started to deterioate by this 1954 recording. The song, told from the point of view of a prostitute, hits close when you know that Holiday herself was forced into prostuition when she was in her early teen. There are few artists out there who able to trump Holiday on demonstrating the sadder side of life.

The Wind – Nolan Strong & The Diablos (1954)

Listen to this and you will wonder how a man can have such a voice of Nolan Strong. He sounds like a woman, possibly even higher a contralto. This is in stark comparison to the deep voices of the Diablos who have the deep bullfrog style voices. There is something rather creepy and disconcerting about this recording, mainly due to the otherwordlyness of Strong’s voice and the large about of vibrations generated by the lower tones.

My Funny Valentine – Chet Baker (1954)

What lets this song down for me is the fact that it is so deeply embedded in pop culture that I have probably heard it a lot of times, such as during a montage scene in The Vicar of Dibley. As such I am unable to take this as seriously as I could. It is interesting to me that this is considered the standard of the song considering that Chet Baker’s voice is not as powerful as other singers who later attempted this song. He is able, therefore, to cut to the tender heart of this song much more easily than others who have turned it into a powerballad.

Shake, Rattle and Roll – Big Joe Turner & His Blues Kings (1954)

This year is considered by many as the one where rock and roll music was truly born. The next song on the list will attest to that. ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’ also fits the bill as being one of the early rock and roll tracks, although this leans a lot more heavily on the traditional rhytym and blues.

(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock – Bill Haley & His Comets (1954)

And so rock and roll entered the public consciousness. I don’t think there are a lot people who have not heard this standard. Even if you are passing a 50’s style diner, it is likely that you will hear this song. Seeing how we are nearly 60 songs in, I can see how this was not the first rock and roll song, but this the song where the final shoe dropped. The line has been crossed and this is now a new genre.

I Get Along Without You Very Well – Chet Baker (1954)

Effortless is the word that comes to mind with Chet Baker. He doesn’t seem to try when he is singing, it is cool and it is relaxed. This song did not exactly hit me to be honest.

In the We Small Hours of the Morning – Frank Sinatra (1955)

If I am being completely honest, I am looking forward to the time where we are going to get to something a bit more punchy and a bit less croony. It’s coming, but I am not sure how many years away this is going to be. Don’t get me wrong, Sinatra has a remarkably smooth voice and, as traditional pop goes, this is a nice song. But that’s it. Unlike Chet Baker’s two offerings this feels toothless and without any real emotion attached (and then there is the whole other league of Billie Holiday, but let’s not go there).

Tutti Frutti – Little Richard (1955)

Ever noticed how repetitive this song is? When someone mentioned this to me it is all I can think of when I hear this song. It’s a brilliant example of rock and roll and one of the many directions it was going to take. Also, what a single to announce your solo career to the world with. You can’t not smile when this song is on. Side note: this may be the first singer who we have encountered that is still alive.

Only You (and You Alone) – The Platters (1955)

This is a really well executed song of it’s genre. It’s something I can imagine Elvis later covering and changing the instruments to make it sound a bit more rock and roll. The problem is, doo wop music has become outdated (in 2016) and, considering the songs picked for 1955, looks like it was on its way out even then.

Cry Me a River – Julie London (1955)

Ah, a classic torch song. There is something comforting about something that is skirting the line of sentimentality. Interesting how this was one of those songs that was passed between artists before being given to Julie London. She gives a smooth and restrained version with an undercurrent of anger, something that a lot of other artists might have missed. This is not a song to be overdone.

Sixteen Tons – Tennessee Ernie Ford (1955)

I only know this song thanks to The Simpsons and South Park. It has become one of those in pop culture that is associated with back-breaking labour for no reward (usually to a comic effect). Like with ‘My Funny Valentine’ it is not a song I can take seriously because of how it has been used comedically. Then again, I am not sure we are entirely meant to take it at face value.

I’m a Man – Bo Diddly (1955)

Again I am waiting for Etta James to step in and sing about how she wants to be made love to. Makes for a nice piece of symmetry I guess. Listening to this and Riot in Cell Block No. 9 so close together really does show up how a lot of rhythm and blues music of this era sounded similar. I think I am beginning to understand what people mean when they say everything on the charts sounds the same.

Progress: 65/1021

1001 Songs – 1941 – 1946

List Item:  Listen to the 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die

Gloomy Sunday – Billie Holiday (1941)

Watchers of QI will know this song as being associated with radio listeners committing suicide. I know it’s dumb, but I did gird my loins in case of severe depression. It is always great when a song has such a dark urban myth attached to it. The song itself, whilst it is undoubtedly melancholy, did not make me want to slit my wrists. Her delivery is, as always, emotionally evocative. Much more so due to the lyrics shading suicide.

Guantanamera – Joseito Fernandez (1941)

A nice respite in the Billie Holiday sandwich of depression. ‘Guantanamera’ feels a lot more cheerful for two reasons. Cuban melodies are fairly upbeat even when dealing with tragedy. Also, I have no idea what he is singing. I just know that he keeps using a feminine verison of Guantanamo which feels weird considering what Gitmo is.

God Bless The Child – Billie Holiday (1941)

Oh god, this has been ruined for me by the Simpsons Sing The Blues album. Nowhere near as mournful as ‘Strange Fruit’ or ‘Gloomy Sunday’ – maybe because this is a song that Billie Holiday wrote herself. One thing I am very aware of is how clear her voice is. As someone who listens to Lady In Satin every now and then (‘Violet for Your Furs’ being a favourite’) it is great to be able to hear how her voice was before the drugs and the drink got to it. Like a mournful siren.

Stormy Weather – Lena Horne (1943)

Where Billie Holiday is mournful in her songs that address dissapointment, Lena Horne is petulant. ‘Stormy Weather’ is about how life (and men) have dissapointed the singer. Lena is angry at her disspointment and at the world that has caused her to feel this way. The sweeping strings in the background perfectly lift her soaring vocal delivery. It’s a very simply arranged song, but Lena Horne is able to easily carry it off with a whole lot of confidence.

Rum and Coca-Cola – Lord Invader (1943)

Just noticed that we have skipped over 1942. This is a very dark song, not that you would know it until you look at the lyrics. It’s a song about how the US soldiers went over to Triniad and the writer feels that they were invading the society (the title referring to the drinks that US soldiers were drinking). It also makes a lot of references to the US soldiers sleeping with local women. On the shallow level, the song is all over the place and can be difficult to follow. On a deeper level, it’s a historical document.

This Land Is Your Land – Woody Guthrie (1944)

A very patriotic and a very American song here. I have never really liked this song for the way some people have been able to re-appropriate it against immigration along the US-Mexico border. In a more innocent world it would be nice enough, it’s just some people have been able to ruin it.

Lili Marleen – Marlene Dietrich (1945)

I love Marlene Dietrich in films – her deep and smoky delivery makes for interesting listening. It’s a very German cabaret type of voice (like Ute Lemper in the modern day). I don’t know German – but I know it is a rather beautiful sounding German love song. The fact that this version was used by the Allies in World War Two as a way to demoralise German soldiers (Marlene Dietrich apparently being very on board with this) makes this song a weird stroke of genius.

(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66 – The Nat King Cole Trio (1946)

I am so used to Nat King Cole being a voice of Christmas songs, so it is weird to hear him sounding so youthful. It’s a crossover song between pop and rhythym and blues – and if it was released after Bill Haley came onto the scene this would have sounded VERY different.

Al gurugu – La Nina de los peines (1946)

A good example of why I went for this list instead of Acclaimed Music. This is a flamenco song that would not have appeared on a critics top list, but is interesting to listen to because it is a very different type of song. Yes, this is a latin off shoot, but the foot stomping in the background keeping the beat in the place of drums makes a lot more sense. She was very important in the flamenco scene – just not many people are aware of that scene.

La vie en rose – Edith Piaf (1946)

One of the most famous songs ever to come out of France. It’s a beautiful song where you can just phase out of whatever you are doing and take you along a journey with it. I just love it. Hard to know what else to say.

La mer – Charles Trenet (1946)

I had no idea that ‘Beyond The Sea’ was based on a French song! Well, you learn something new everyday. I quite like the English version and, because it is what I am used to, I do prefer it. There is something about listening to the melody with the original (and unrelated) French lyrics. My one issue? When the backing singers join at the end of ‘La Mer’, it detracts from the simplicity of it.

Progress: 31/1021

1001 Songs – 1934 – 1940

List Item:  Listen to the 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die

Mal hombre – Lydia Mendoza (1934)

What strikes me most here is that it is just her and her guitar. A simple but very heartfelt song about a titular ‘Bad Man’. I guess it’s on here because it was the start of the popularity of Mexican-Americans in the charts. Proof that girl power was around in music even back in 1934

Hula Girl – Sol Hoopii (1934)

Hawaiian music that apparently inspired a dance craze. Nowadays it feels more like music you would hear in Spongebob Squarepants. In fact, it might have been… might have to check that out. In any case, it is fun, toe-tapping and feels very much from the thirties. The twang is very proto-country, which is just strange to think that country musicians are unknowlingly playing guitars the Polynesian way.

Can the Circle Be Unbroken (By and By) – The Carter Family (1935)

Talking of country music, here is one of the other big influences on country music guitar playing. The song itself is about a funeral of a family member (a very country music topic) and features close harmonies by the then-current members of the Carter family. This is definitely before country and americana music split into the more distinct genres that we know of today.

Cross Road Blues – Robert Johnson (1936)

Sadly this is a rather poor recording from the man who supposedly sold his soul to the devil to become a better blues musician (thanks Coen Brothers that that nugget of information). A blues song about hitching a ride and all the associated troubles…

Hellhound on My Trail – Robert Johnson (1937)

…now this is a better recording. Feels like a continuation of the myth that Johnson perpetuated about his relationship with the ‘darkness’ and hell hounds. Listening to these it’s rather clear that he grew up in a rather fire and brimstone Christian area. Might be why those outside the area misconstrued these references for the so-called contract.

Strange Fruit – Billie Holiday (1939)

The first truly iconic songs encountered on this list so far. The imagery of lynched African Americans as the titular ‘Strange Fruit’ made this a harrowing poem. Add a subdued backing track to the arresting vocals of Billie Holiday – well it makes you stop what you are doing and listen. Many songs in these days pulled their punches, but this certainly did not. The vivid describtions of bulging eyes and twisted mouths interwoven with what we would think of when seeing a tree ripe with fruit is astonishing. It’s sickening to think that things are still like this in some places. I just hope that this song forms part of the curriculum in the US because sometimes it is essential to remember things like this.

Over the Rainbow – Judy Garland (1939)

A nice antidote to ‘Strange Fruit’. Where the last song was despair and protest, ‘Over The Rainbow’ is all hope and dreams for the future. Whilst it is hopeful it is also distinctly bittersweet. At the end is the question of why can the singer not reach the rainbow when others can. Recovery had happened in America after the Great Depression, but this was still the era of the Dust Bowl where many Americans were struggling to fulfill the American Dream as promised to them. Thinking historically, it makes as much sense for them to be singing this whilst trying to comfort those who are descending into hopelessness.

The Gallis Pole – Lead Belly (1939)

After the previous two iconic offerings the next one was always going to fall a bit flat. The song itself, later covered by Led Zepplin as ‘Gallows Pole’ is interesting lyrically, but on the recording it is rather hard to discern what he is saying a lot of the time. This may be on the list becase Lead Belly is one of those big influences, but in terms of the song this is the first one where I am struggling for things to say.

Mbube – Solomon Linda & The Evening Birds (1939)

Most of us will know this song under the title of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’. My ears perked up when this started because to hear something so familiar was rather unexpected. The fact that this song was stolen, became a huge success and the writer died pretty much penniless is appalling. I will not be able to watch that scene in The Lion King in the same way again.

Java Jive – The Ink Spots (1940)

This is a love song about coffee. After the more philosophical songs about death, hope and colonialism it is a refreshing way to end this batch of songs. There is no other layer to this song, it’s just about wanting a cup of coffee. This is something that really should have been the unofficial theme song of Gilmore Girls.

Progress: 20/1021