About this Recording
8.120750 - HOLIDAY, Billie: You're My Thrill (1944-1949)

‘You’re My Thrill’ Original Recordings 1944-1949

Billie Holiday’s recording career can be easily divided into three parts. During 1933-42 she generally recorded with groups of swing all-stars, taking a vocal chorus while holding her own on a wide variety of material (some good, some forgettable) with such contemporaries as tenorsaxophonist Lester Young, trumpeter Buck Clayton and pianist Teddy Wilson. In the 1950s Lady Day recorded superior standards with some of the top veteran jazz musicians but her voice faded and one had to concentrate on her passionate level of self-expression rather than her intonation. You’re My Thrill has her best recordings from her middle period.

The Billie Holiday story is full of drama, tragedy and musical triumphs. She was born as Eleanora Harris on 7 April 1915 in Baltimore, Maryland to a couple who never married. Her father, whom she only met a few times, was Clarence Holiday who played guitar for a few years with Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra. She took her father’s last name and liked the sound of the name Billie; perhaps it was her way of escaping a scary and poverty-stricken childhood. Holiday was not a child for long and she survived her early days with an inferiority complex that would help lead to her making consistently bad decisions throughout her life. However she emerged with a determination to live life as well as she could. Inspired by Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong (particularly in her phrasing), Holiday was singing in a Harlem club in 1933 when she was discovered by producer John Hammond. He teamed her with Benny Goodman and Jack Teagarden on two numbers that were recorded and, although those selections were not too successful, it was a start.

Holiday appeared in a film short with Duke Ellington (singing a blues chorus) and she freelanced in clubs. In 1935 she got her big break when Hammond hit upon the idea of having Teddy Wilson put together all-star swing groups for record dates. Some of the selections featured Billie Holiday and those became quite popular. Holiday’s style was controversial at the time because she phrased behind-the-beat. She also changed notes to fit her small voice and range rather than interpreting words and music exactly as written, coming up with her own fresh interpretations.

In addition to her steady stream of recordings, Holiday worked with the Count Basie Orchestra in 1937 and Artie Shaw’s big band the following year. Because she was signed to a different label than Basie and Shaw, those stints went almost completely undocumented.

1939 was one of several turning points in Lady Day’s career. She recorded the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” and her solo career really got underway as she appeared regularly at Café Society in New York. Her recordings of 1940-42 feature her more as a star rather than someone taking her turn with other jazz musicians.

Holiday’s life was far from stable in the 1940s. She became a heroin addict and spent much of 1947 serving a one-year jail sentence. On the brighter side, her voice was at its absolute strongest during the decade. She made her one Hollywood film during this time (New Orleans with Louis Armstrong, 1946) and recorded definitive versions of many of her standards. In 1944 Holiday signed with the Decca label and during the next five years she was featured as a major name in a variety of settings. The best of these recordings constitute this reissue.

What Is This Thing Called Love, one of six numbers that have Lady Day backed by a studio orchestra headed by bassist-arranger Bob Haggart, has good spots from the boppish trumpeter Joe Guy and guitarist Tiny Grimes along with a straightforward vocal statement from Holiday.

Lover Man was Lady Day’s first recording for Decca and on it she fulfilled a lifetime dream by being backed by a string section. Lover Man was a big hit and sold more records than any Holiday recording. The song would be in her repertoire from then on. You Better Go Now is more obscure but fits Holiday’s style well. Perhaps it did not catch on with Lady Day because it was not particularly autobiographical, unlike Don’t Explain. This sad and haunting ballad has lyrics by Holiday, who knew very well what the words meant. Although she did not write Good Morning Heartache, the mood is the same and one could consider it to be the morning hangover after Don’t Explain.

Most of Billie Holiday’s Decca recordings have her accompanied by large orchestras and some of her fans complained about the commercial settings. Actually although the backings are all written out, Lady Day’s singing was still pretty spontaneous and heart-felt. Leonard Bernstein’s Big Stuff, which had previously been recorded unsuccessfully by Holiday with an orchestra, for this version has her joined by a quintet with Guy, Grimes and pianist Joe Springer. The Blues Are Brewin’, which was sung by Holiday in the film New Orleans, has backing by a sextet that includes her regular pianist Bobby Tucker and tenor-saxophonist Bob Dorsey. It is surprising that this memorable number did not catch on as a standard.

Trumpeter Billy Butterfield and clarinetist Bill Stegmeyer are in the group that joins Holiday on the intriguing Deep Song and two standards that were not performed often by the singer through the years: tasteful ballad renditions of There Is No Greater Love and Duke Ellington’s Solitude.

Sy Oliver, best known for his arrangements for Jimmie Lunceford and Tommy Dorsey, contributed many of the charts that Holiday recorded in 1949. Three selections have Lady Day backed by a powerful big band as she looks back to the classic blues era and her early interest in the music of Bessie Smith. Smith, the Empress Of The Blues, recorded Keeps On A Rainin in 1923 and Holiday’s version (with Budd Johnson heard on tenor) is an effective updating. The doubleentendre Do Your Duty and Gimme A Pigfoot And A Bottle Of Beer are from Smith’s last record date which was cut on 24 November 1933, three days before Holiday’s first record.

Lady Day’s very expressive versions of I Loves You Porgy and My Man have her joined by a rhythm section (pianist Bobby Tucker, guitarist Mundell Lowe, bassist John Levy and drummer Denzil Best), giving one a good idea how Holiday sounded in concert during this period.

While Lady Day could only pay tribute to the late Bessie Smith (who died in 1937), she did have an opportunity to record two numbers with her other idol, Louis Armstrong. You Can’t Lose A Broken Heart is quite effective (it is well worth reviving) and, even if the good-humored My Sweet Hunk O’ Trash is not a classic, it does express plenty of joy.

Both Lady Day and Gordon Jenkins’ arrangement for strings are very expressive on You’re My Thrill, a song that was recorded by many singers in the 1950s. Holiday still owns the touching Crazy He Calls Me (although Abbey Lincoln also cut a classic version) while her version of ’Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do which was a hit for both Bessie Smith and Jimmy Witherspoon, perfectly expresses some of her attitudes towards those who disapproved of her lifestyle.

Just 34 at the time of her 1949 recordings, Billie Holiday had many traumatic episodes in the future along with creating some excellent music. She passed away a living legend on 17 July 1959 when she was 44. While her personal life sometimes overshadowed her music, it is the latter that is destined to be her legacy.

Scott Yanow
– author of eight jazz books including Swing, Jazz On Film, Bebop, Trumpet Kings and Jazz On Record 1917-76

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