Tag Archives: Billie Holiday

“Je Finirai Par L’oublier” b/w “Milisse Mou” by Nana Mouskouri. Fontana 6010 066. Recorded in France, 1972.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

Born in Crete to a projectionist father and usher mother in 1934, Iōánna Moúschouri (Nana to her friends) had shown a clear gift for music at a young age. So did her sister, however. Her family could only afford music lessons for one of the girls, so they asked their tutor which one should have them. They were told that Jenny was more skilled, but Nana had the passion and the need to sing.

Nana got the lessons. They must have been a bright spot in a childhood marred by the Nazi occupation of Greece. Her father fought in the Communist resistance.

Nana spent eight years studying opera at the Athens Conservatoire, but was barred from taking her final exams because of her moonlighting in a jazz club. As a child in Athens (her family had re-located when she was three years old) Nana had listened to Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra on her radio, and the temptation to apply her skills to that work had been too great to resist. So opera proved to be unwelcoming, but exposure in the clubs lead to recordings—this is one of her first, 1958’s “Ilissos.”

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45: “Gloomy Sunday,” “Am I Blue” b/w “Body and Soul,” “Long Gone Blues” by Billie Holiday and her Orchestra. Columbia B-2534. Recorded 08/07/41, 05/09/41, 02/29/40, and 03/21/39 in New York City.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

When I find a 45 from an obscure Dutch progressive rock band, it isn’t that difficult to pick five or six songs that give a good sense of that band’s career arc. For other artists, that simply can’t be done—their influence is too strong, their lives too compelling, or their catalog simply runs too deep to attempt such an abbreviated presentation of their work. All of those conditions are met by Billie Holiday. So I’m going to include the songs on this 45 EP, and a couple of others of note, but as any fan of Billie’s will tell you, I’ll only be scratching the surface.

A little background. Billie was born Eleanora Fagan, in 1915, and raised by distant relatives in Philadelphia while her mother worked as a server on passenger trains. Her absent father was most likely Clarence Holiday, a musician who played with Fletcher Henderson’s band—Billie and Clarence would reconnect later in her life. She was in reform school for truancy at the age of 10, raped by a neighbor at the age of 11, and, after moving with her mother to Harlem, forced to join her as a prostitute at the age of 14. A childhood spent listening to Louis Armstrong and King Oliver gave her the confidence to develop a singing style that allowed for non-traditional phrasing and intonation, as if her voice was a cornet. She recorded songs for 26 years and sold out Carnegie Hall multiple times, but was hampered by addiction, racism and bad management. Her rendition of “Strange Fruit” is a stark cry against lynching and was one of the very first popular protest songs. She died in New York City in 1959 of cirrhosis of the liver, with police guarding her room in hopes of trying her for narcotics possession if she got better. She was an early example of the romantic doomed-addict-musician-whose-light-burned-too-bright-to-last notion, an idea which, ultimately, gets in the way of appreciating exactly how good she was as a singer and how painful her life must have actually been.

Here’s her very first single, “Your Mother’s Son-in-Law.” It was recorded with Benny Goodman and his orchestra for Columbia on November 27, 1933. Note how she had yet to settle into the higher register that would later become her trademark.

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78: “Gone With “What” Wind” b/w “Blow Top” by Count Basie and His Orchestra. Okeh 5629. Recorded in New York City, 05/31/40.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

Born in Red Bank, New Jersey in 1904, William “Count” Basie was raised by a musical family—his father played the mellophone and his mother the piano; she taught him how to play. Reportedly, the teenaged Basie preferred playing drums to piano, but meeting musicians like fellow Red Banker Sonny Greer, who played drums with Duke Ellington’s band, made him reconsider his musical focus. Playing piano locally lead to gigs in Harlem, and soon enough Basie was on the road with bands like Katie Krippen and Her Kiddies and Walter Page and His Blue Devils, playing in jazz hotbeds like Chicago and Kansas City.

By 1937 Basie had his own group and had returned to the east coast, settling in Woodside, Queens and soon enough playing the Roseland in Manhattan. With advice and encouragement from producer John Hammond, Basie and his Orchestrawent from being a strong road act to an orchestra that was good enough for the most critical New York audiences. In 1938, they participated in a Battle of the Bands at the Savoy against Chick Webb’s orchestra. Each band had a promising young singer—Webb had Ella Fitzgerald, and Basie had Billie Holiday.

According to Metronome magazine, Basie’s band was the victor:

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