This is the first of a new weekly series on The De Mello Theory about records from my collection that I feel need to be talked about. I felt like starting with one of the greatest and most tragic artists of all-time to begin the series. They won’t always be this serious, but I do want great records or underrated ones to be the focus. I hope you enjoy!
The Essential Billie Holiday: Carnegie Hall Concert Recorded Live starts with former New York Times writer Gilbert Millstein reading from Billie Holiday’s autobiography Lady Sings the Blues at the concert. “Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was sixteen, and I was three.” He then goes into another section where she talks about when she was sixteen, “I was a woman when I was sixteen. I was big for my age, with big breasts, big bones, a big fat healthy broad, that’s all.”
Millstein reads from the book not in order, but in cliff notes version telling Holiday’s story through her words and her pain. It’s a brilliant convention that evokes such sadness that when Holiday begins to sing in the background as Millstein finishes his first foray into her life the audience can be heard gasping at some of the street lingo used. Her band for the performance, under the direction of Chico Hamilton, was full of jazz greats. Al Cohn on the tenor sax, Buck Clayton on the trumpet, Tony Scott on clarinet, Carl Drinkard playing piano, Carson Smith on bass, Chico Hamilton on drums and Kenny Burrell on guitar. This was an all-star accompaniment.
In the liner notes Millstein is blunt and brutal. You can see that he was angry over the choices Holiday made with her life, because of the immense talent she possessed. He says, “Billie Holiday died in Metropolitan Hospital, New York, on Friday, July 17, 1959, in the bed in which she had been arrested for illegal possession of narcotics a little more than a month before, as she lay mortally sick; in the room from which the police guard had been removed – by court order – only a few hours before her death, which, like her life, was disorderly and pitiful.”
Indeed he wasn’t wrong about that, Billie Holiday came up in the streets of Baltimore, was raped at 13 on Christmas Eve, had no discernible parental guidance and by 14 was a Harlem prostitute. She had a hard life and even though she had a great talent, the pain of that childhood never truly went away as she struggled with alcohol and drugs her entire life. By the time she was 40 she was practically washed up. Her body was disintegrating, her voice was faltering and her mind was wavering. She was by all accounts finished. Then she was asked to play Carnegie Hall and though she refused at first, thinking she didn’t have it in her, she ultimately relented.
Millstein goes on:
It was evident even then, that Miss Holiday was ill. I had known her casually over the years and I was shocked at her physical weakness. Her rehearsal was desultory; her voice sounded tinny and trailed off; her body sagged tiredly. But I will not soon forget the metamorphosis at night. The lights went down, the musicians began to play and the the narration began. Miss Holiday stepped from between the curtains, into the white spotlight awaiting her, wearing a white evening gown and white gardenias in her black hair. She was erect and beautiful; poised and smiling. And when the first section of the narration was ended, she sang – with strength undiminished, with all of the art that was hers. I was very much moved. In the darkness, my face burned and my eyes. I recall only one other thing. I smiled.
Lady Sings the Blues
The first track Billie Holiday sings is a beautiful rendition of one of her more famous songs. She wrote the song and the pain of losing “my man” is real every time she sings it. In recordings, previous to this live one, you can hear the uneasiness in her voice, almost trepidation, but here her voice is strong with that patented quiver that put her on the map in the first place.
It Ain’t Nobody’s Business
This was an old Blues standard popularized on the vaudeville circuit, but it spoke to Billie as a narrative to her own addictions and the people that tried to intervene. She was fiercely independent from a young age and what she did to escape the pain of a life full of it well…wasn’t anybody’s business. Holiday sings it with sublime subtlety and almost a wry wit. You can almost hear the smirk on her face and maybe a nod or two.
Millstein narrates again from Holiday’s book, “I thought I was a real hip kitty. In a matter of days I had my chance to become a strictly twenty dollar call girl – and I took it.”
Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone
The lyrics speak of the end of a relationship where the female asks her parting love to speak kindly of her or say nothing at all. This is a very short song and turns the sadness of the previous passage into a rip roaring swing joint.
I’ll Be Seeing You
A very loungy, sexy number. Holiday lets her voice linger throughout the piece and at the end shows the limited range she still possesses or ever possessed for that matter.
A sensual ballad that delves into her own sexuality and longing for a good man to complete her.
Body and Soul
This one garners loud applause when it starts. Popularized by saxophonist Coleman Hawkins “Body and Soul” is a standard even in 1956. She sings it as if she were in a nightclub singing to one person in the audience and making him her focus. She personalizes it and it resonates with loud applause at the end as well.
Millstein narrates again, this time about Holiday’s failing first marriage to Jimmy Monroe. A precursor to:
Another Holiday original about the night her husband, the aforementioned Monroe, came home with lipstick on his collar. Instead of confronting him about the lipstick and becoming angry, she acknowledged the cheating as if it were just a part of the relationship. It’s just another sad tale of Holiday seeking a love she never found or could never let herself find in her short and troubled life.
Almost an interlude, it lasts barely over a minute and its purpose seems to bring the audience out of their depression from the previous song.
Millstein’s narration continues and reads about the time she got out of prison and then played Carnegie Hall the first time. She writes about how she lost her Cabaret Card which made it impossible for her to work in places that sold alcohol and how she married again. You got to have something to eat and a little love in your life before you can hold still for any damn telling you how to behave.
A French song originally called “Mon Homme” and popularized in America by Fannie Brice was converted into a jazz/blues song by Billie Holiday. She sings this such sadness about the man that beats her, treats her bad, but she loves him, because he is her man.
I Cried For You
Another sad ballad, but merely a standard that has been covered by more than 50 artists.
Fine and Mellow
Another song about how her man treats her poorly. There are very few men in Holiday’s life that treated her well and someone that was desperate to be loved and feel something, anything positive in her life that she turned to junk. She sings about how good he can be when he isn’t boozing or smacking her around, but when he does watch out. She would do anything for this man if he would just treat her right. You can tell the songs written by Holiday from the standards as she sings with such conviction that you really feel what she feels. It’s like performance art and it’s brilliance personified.
I Cover the Waterfront
Another song covered by many artists, but this version is so slow and reflective that it evokes true feelings from the audience and the singer. The audience applauds in the middle for reasons that are not apparent from the record. There is a wonderful saxophone accompaniment that bounces around Holiday’s vocals without interfering. The clarinet intertwines itself with her voice so perfectly that it is almost unnoticeable.
What a Little Moonlight Can Do
Or a spotlight…she tackles a fairly easy standard and ends on a high note.
The crowd becomes absolutely uproarious and applauds vociferously as she finishes. The adulation from the crowd is the love she desperately sought her whole life. When she lost her cabaret card and her records went out of print, she also ran out of money. Jazz was popular in New York like almost nowhere else and it was in jazz halls where the most alcohol was consumed. The spotlight was the love she craved.
Nat Hentoff, who also wrote some of the liner notes, wrote about that night with the voice of a generation, “The audience was hers from before she sang, greeting her and saying good-bye with heavy, loving applause. And at one time, the musicians too applauded. It was a night when Billie was on top, undeniably the best and most honest jazz singer alive. It is good to have that night now available permanently. There hasn’t been another like it since.”