The Best of Billie Holiday 20th Century Masters/The Millennium Collection is a wonderful introduction to the artist. Holiday’s musical career spanned the years from 1933, when she made her first recordings with Benny Goodman, to 1959 when she performed for the last time in public on television prior to her tragic death. This particular collection of recordings spans the years from 1939 to 1956, beginning with Holiday’s popular recording of “Strange Fruit” and ending with a recording of the jazz classic, co-written with Arthur Herzog, “God Bless the Child”.
Holiday led a turbulent life from the crib to her deathbed. She was born Elinore Harris in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1915. Her mother took in what work she could, and her father, a jazz guitarist, was rarely around. At fifteen, Holiday was arrested for prostitution. Her run-ins with the law, her abusive relationships with men, her tolerance of these men, and her drug and alcohol abuse, all continued throughout her life, and have been well documented in numerous books as well as in her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues. Every song here seems to reflect that existence.
The haunting strains of “Strange Fruit” stand like sentinels at the beginning of this collection, as if to say, “If you, the listener, can’t handle this, you can’t handle Billie Holiday.” The song begins like a funeral dirge. The lyric, a protest of the negro lynchings of the south, is, quite frankly, difficult to listen to. Holiday sings “Pastoral scene of the gallant South / The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth / Smell of magnolia sweet and fresh / Then the sudden smell of burnin’ flesh / Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck / For the rain to gather / For the wind to suck / For the sun to rot / For the tree to drop”.
“Strange Fruit” was originally composed as a poem by Abel Meerpol, a high school teacher, and presented to Holiday on a gig in Manhattan. She was apparently moved enough by it to take it to her producer Milt Gabler and record it as a song, despite protests from the label over the controversial nature of the lyric. That it was a hit in 1939 is quite amazing. That Holiday recorded the song is not. In his book From Satchmo to Miles, Leonard Feather writes of Holiday being the first black vocalist to join an all white orchestra and of the indignities she suffered during her tenure with Artie Shaw’s band. Racial discrimination was something Holiday experienced first hand, time and time again.
The most wonderful and directly revealing songs on this album are, not surprisingly, the ones Holiday co-wrote. “Fine and Mellow”, a blues reminiscent of the great Bessie Smith, is the second track, and a welcome relief to the seriousness of “Strange Fruit”. The band is superb and the lyric simple but, as always with Holiday, convincing. She sings “My man don’t love me / Treats me oh so mean / My man don’t love me / Treats me awful mean / He’s the lowest man that I’ve ever seen”. “Don’t Explain” is one of Holiday’s more heart-wrenching compositions, written after her husband came home with lipstick on his collar. The lush string arrangement on this recording, though many jazz purists would disagree, is a wonderful contrast to Holiday’s smoky and delicate vocal. The other two Holiday compositions in this collection are classic recordings of “Lady Sings the Blues” and “God Bless the Child”, possibly her most well known song.
Then there are the songs she did not write but which she sings like she did. There are her famous recordings of “Lover Man”, of “Tain’t Nobody’s Business if I Do”, and “I Cover the Waterfront”, recorded live at Carnegie Hall in 1956. There is also the more lighthearted “Good Morning Heartache”. Each seems to tell a chapter of Holiday’s tortured life in such a way that we do not pity but empathize, and somewhere deep down believe that she sings not only for herself but for us as well.
The songs are arranged chronologically, which is a plus for the individual interested in gaining perspective of Holiday’s life and musical career. The liner notes are well written and informative. The only drawbacks to this collection are that there are only twelve songs and little representation or mention of the wonderful musicians she performed with throughout her career, namely Lester Young, the tenor saxophonist who dubbed Billie Holiday “Lady Day”.
Regardless, it is a fine introduction to the legend, the story, and the music of Billie Holiday. She summed herself up best when she sang “Lady sings the blues / “She’s got them mad / She feels so sad/ And wants the world to know / Just what her blues is all about”.