Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Trav'lin' Light : The Music of Billie Holiday 1

As I mentioned the other day, I have started a project for my own amusement : working my way through the entire catalogue of Billie Holiday recordings. Occasionally I will stop off and share one of the recordings with blog readers. The postings are designed to be neither authoritative nor comprehensive - they are simply dips into the barrel and a chance to share some wonderful music and glorious singing. Perhaps the only logical thing about this new mini-series is the starting point : 27th November 1933 and the first known recording session by Billie Holiday.

When Billie first set foot in the recording studio she was just eighteen years old. Nevertheless she had already suffered more from life than most people would expect in a lifetime. She had experienced grinding poverty, she had been raped at least twice, she had been driven to work in a brothel and she had been imprisoned for solicitation. She has also started to earn tips by singing in the night clubs of Harlem and it was there that in 1933 she was discovered by the jazz writer and producer, John Hammond. Hammond managed to arrange a recording session with the Benny Goodman Band (Goodman led one of the few racially integrated jazz bands of the period) and this led to two tracks being cut on the 27th November 1933. The first of these - the first recording by Billie Holiday - was a song that was currently featuring in a show called "Blackbirds of 1933", a song written by the husband and wife partnership of Mann Holiner and Alberta Nichols, "Your Mother's Son-In-Law"



Billie made slight changes to the original lyrics to make some kind of gender sense - changing "Your Mother's Son-In-Law" to "My Mother's Son-In-Law". As she sings it the lyrics are as follows:

You dont have to have a hanker
To be a broker or a banker
No siree, just simply be
My mothers son-in-law.

Neednt even think of tryin
To be a mighty social lion
Sipping tea, if youll be
My mothers son-in-law,

Aint got the least desire
To set the world on fire
Just wish youd make it proper
To call my old man papa

You dont have to sing like Bledsoe
You can tell the world I said so
Cant you see youve got to be
My mothers son-in-law.

You dont have to sing like Jessel
You can tell the world I said so
Cant you see, youve got to be
My mothers son-in-law.

For those, like me, who are intrigued by lyrical references, "Bledsoe" was Jules Bledsoe a famous baritone, one of the first African Americans to work on Broadway and the original Joe in the musical Show Boat before Paul Robeson took over the role. "Jessel" was George Jessel, another star of Vauderville and the star of the Broadway show "The Jazz Singer". When Warner Brothers decided to adapt the show as the first "Talking Picture" they refused to meet Jessel's salary demands and Al Johnson was brought in to play the part instead.

But what is memorable about this first recorded performance by Billie Holiday is not the song or the detail of the lyrics. It is that voice, that combination of lightness and emotion, that cavernous depth of feeling that would be a trademark of her singing for the remaining 25 years of her life.

15 comments:

  1. Her voice has always hit me in an arresting, gotta stay and hear it way. Stirring inside... I do admire John Hammond, and his son is so very VERY cool,too. Lovely way to spend the afternoon.
    -Jayne

    All this time I thought I was following you...der!

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  2. A wonderful project. She is a music category unto herself. Have you run into her rendition of Stars Fell on Alabama Last Night?

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  3. This was a cool way to brighten up my morning. Loved the interesting tidbit about Jules Bledsoe. Thanks, Alan.

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  4. Fascinating, thanks for that. The only think I knew about her was that my wife loves her music!

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  5. Great track; there is something special about Jazz and the Blues from that period.

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  6. Thanks all. Bruce - her recording of Stars Fell on Alabama is No 299 in the catalogue and so far I'm only up to No. 20 I've heard it before however and this time through I should get round to it next Spring!

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  7. Alan,
    Don't know if you head back to read comments on the comments so I'm telling you here...
    Your comment put a lump in my throat, you are so dear. -J

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  8. To my mind, there was no-one to touch her. A great singer.

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  9. Haven't heard Billie H for years - my flatmate used to be nuts about her when I was at Uni. Alan, I've just started exploring this second blog of yours - am amazed and cheered to read about your cochlear implant. Coincidentally, I'm deaf too and struggle along with 2 hearing aids. It's really encouraging to know that an interesting and talented guy such as yourself has more in common with me than just the obvious of photography and blogging.

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  10. Great start to the series--what a line-up in this Goodman band. The most interesting thing to me about Holiday's singing in this clip is that it's much more straight than at the peak of her career--there's less singing around the beat--tho I don't know that the song lends itself so much to that treatment! Definitely look forward to more of these.

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  11. I don't think I have ever heard the story of her background! Beautiful, stirring music!

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  12. Such a great song... loved it. Thank you!

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  13. I have to say I'm not a great officianado of Billie Holliday but I remember Diana Ross portrayal of her in a movie years ago. Good lesson on the lady singing the blues!

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  14. I'm not sure I have ever really listened to Billy Holiday before although now that I've heard this track I am looking forward to hearing more!
    And I had no idea of her background either - what a lady.

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  15. there is just something about her voice...and to know her background now...so much more.

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