When I first became interested in American popular music – the music that is now referred to as The Great American Songbook – the singers I most often listened to were Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Doris Day. They are extremely accessible singers, particularly Ella Fitzgerald, and one of the factors that particularly led me to Ella Fitzgerald were the songbook albums she recorded. Her first songbook recording was The Cole Porter Songbook in 1955. She went on to record a songbook for Harold Arlen (most famous for the songs in The Wizard of Oz), George and Ira Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer (a lyricist more than a composer) and Jerome Kern. There is no better introduction to all these composers or to the Great American Songbook than these albums by Ella Fitzgerald.
However, there was one singer I have constantly heard described as one of the finest interpreters of the Great American songbook, despite the fact that she is known primarily as a jazz singer: Billie Holiday.
But Billie Holiday has taken me some time to appreciate. Known for her artistry as a singer, she is not known for a lovely voice. In fact, her voice has been described as “raspy” by some and she is not what I would call easy listening. You have to concentrate more on her than you do on Ella Fitzgerald.
I recently read a book called Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth by John Szwed. The book is less a biography and more of an appreciation of her art as a singer. He discusses her voice, the songs she sings, but mostly how she sings them. It is a book that requires that you periodically go to youtube to hear what he is describing otherwise his descriptions can be difficult to follow. The other difficultly I had with the book is that he seems to assume that the reader is already familiar with the “myths” of Billie Holiday. There’s been a lot written, but not a lot known for certain, especially about her early life. But I really did like his focus on her music rather than on her life and it went a long way in helping me to appreciate her.
Billie Holiday had a very limited vocal range, so one of her trademarks was to flatten the songs somewhat, repeating certain notes. She would also often slow down songs, much slower than anyone else was singing them, and she sang with a somewhat looser rhythm. Szwed described it at one point as floating above the accompaniment, though she would always catch up rhythmically when she needed to. Billie Holiday began singing in nightclubs, which had a more intimate setting, and another feature of her style was a confessional approach to singing, almost as if she were talking rather than singing.
The song that finally helped me to really hear what Billie Holiday was doing was a 1949 live performance of the song “My Man,” with Jimmy Rowles at the piano. It’s a tragic love song, about how she loves her man despite the fact that he is no good whatsoever and doesn’t love her, beats her (in contemporary recordings, the reference to beating is sometimes removed), and doesn’t even understand how much she loves him. This theme of loving a worthless man is fairly common to songs of that era (why don’t we ever hear men sitting around singing songs about how much they love their worthless women?), but the feeling behind the song, the way Billie Holiday sings it, is deeply moving.
The song “My Man” was originally written in French in the nineteen-teens and called “Mon Homme.” It was popularized in America in 1921 by Fanny Brice, Ziegfeld Follies’ singer, actress and comedian. The song is still primarily associated with her, though Barbra Streisand has also sung it in the movie Funny Girl, which is loosely based on the life and career of Fanny Brice.
Billie Holiday first recorded the song in 1937. At the time, she was making a vast number of recordings with Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra. They were recording music for jukeboxes specifically for black audiences and now those recordings are considered, some of the finest jazz ever recorded. Her recordings with Teddy Wilson are also noted for the fine interaction between Holiday, who said she wanted to use her voice like an instrument, and the improvisation of the instrumentalists.