I think this Cole Porter song has been sung by literally every single jazz singer who ever lived. That may be hyperbole, but it feels right. The list goes on and on, and with so many to choose from, it’s hard to pick a favorite. Picking between Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Peggy Lee, Shirley Bassey, Maurice Chevalier, Kirsty MacColl, Nellie McKay, Ella Fitzgerald, Bryan Ferry, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Judy Garland, Diana Krall, and too many other to mention is a tough task. If you’re a jazzbo, you know that each and every one of those people bring their own touch to it. For the uninitiated, it may all sound like much the same thing endlessly repeated. I’m not a true fanatic, but I can distinguish the styles of my favorite artists. Nonetheless, I wasn’t able to listen to every version of this song – I got bored after two or three. In this case, I prefer the more upbeat renditions. It’s an interesting song lyrically, in that it’s a breakup song with a positive message. It’s a song for shrugging off your heartache and moving on, and it begs for a little swing. For that I like the sassiness of Peggy Lee, who always had a bit of a winky bad girl vibe. And of course, I always gravitate towards Ella Fitzgerald. Ella’s vocal prowess can’t be beat, and she always sounded as if she was enjoying herself, even when she sang very sad songs. Those are just two great perfromances, and there are dozens of others that are equally good, if you want to spend an afternoon listening to the same song over and over.
Marlene Dietrich was a very naughty lady. She was way ahead of her time, and it was not a well-kept secret that she explored life to the fullest, so to say. Her aura of decadence was her appeal. She was not much as a singer, in technical terms, but her songs remain priceless. Many of them are frankly filthy, barely disguised by euphemism. In this case, feel safe in assuming that when she speaks of love it’s not holding hands and pancake breakfasts she’s thinking of. It’s slightly shocking; we don’t associate the 1930’s with blatancy like this. Blatant racism, for sure. Blatant sexuality, not so much. Here, for instance, she practically announces to the world that she learned her kissing skills by practicing on other women. Which she totally did. Not everyone could get away with it, true, but Marlene Dietrich could.
Billie Holiday is just great to start the day with. Yes, on one level, her music is incredibly sad. She’s one of the all time torch singers. When she sings about love, you believe her heart is breaking. But at the same time, her music has the power to make you feel so good. That’s the power of something beautiful, I guess. Because her voice sounds like warmth on a winter’s day. You could curl up and go to sleep to her singing. Nor does it hurt that she performed with the best musicians of her time. When you listen to Billie Holiday, you can tune in and relate to all the emotion, really feel the words, and have a good weep. Or you can just ride the groove, not thinking about meaning at all, and feel so relaxed and at ease.
20 year old Billie Holiday sings in a first session with the Teddy Wilson Orchestra on July 2 1935 in New York. Next to Teddy on piano the All Star Band consists of Benny Goodman clarinet, Roy Eldridge trumpet, Ben Webster tenor sax, John Truehart guitar, John Kirby bass and Cozy Cole drums. Jazz promotor John Hammond heard Billie for the first time in New York’s Monette club in 1933 and wrote in Melody Maker: “Billie although only 18, she weighs over 200 lbs, is incredibly beautiful, and sings as well as anybody I ever heard”. Hammond told Benny Goodman, and the two went to this Monette club. Both were impressed and it was the start of Billie’s career.
Internet info can be shady, but this is what I found in regards to this recording. I don’t know how true it is, but it sounds legit. There’s just not that much known about Billie Holiday’s early years and the beginning of her career, at least by today’s supersaturated standards. Not that it matters in the end. It’s interesting to learn about the artist, of course, and it gives us greater understanding of the works. We know that Holiday had a horrible childhood, went through many bad relationships in adulthood, struggled with addiction for many years, and spent time in prison more than once. Yes, that explains why she sounds so mournful, why she wrote so many sad songs. But none of those facts would matter a whit if the songs didn’t have an impact of their own. Nobody buys a Billie Holiday record to hear the drug addict sing; we discover her records, then we want to learn more and we find out the troubles behind them. So it really doesn’t matter what we do or don’t know. A little shroud of mystery is nice.
What a masochistic love song. Billie Holiday was a great one for that. She didn’t have much luck with men in her life, moving from one unhappy marriage to another. Her personal anguish is always so clear in her singing. Though she is one of the ultimate torch singers and pretty much defines the genre, songs of self-defeating love have always been around and always will be. Because the idea of torch songs is most closely associated with the jazz era, we can pretend that it’s symptomatic of a by-gone time. We would like to do that because, of course, torch songs aren’t exactly the height of political correctness. They remind us of a more constrained society, where gender roles and class barriers, among many other things, stood in the way of true love. The idea that it is a woman’s place to passively stand by her no-goodnik man, or to pine and weep for an unavailable one, or mourn her lost innocence after her lover has left her, is basically what torch songs are all about. Always passive, always suffering, always helpless and without recourse. Those old roles make us uncomfortable now. Except that, as much as we’d like to think that these masochistic songs are purely a product of their era, we have to admit that they are in fact timeless. We’ve all played into those roles. We’ve been the spurned lover. We’ve been ready to make fools of ourselves, to grovel and weep and forget all dignity. We hear and recognize ourselves in torch songs, because while society’s roles for us change, emotions stay the same. You can get mad and say Billie Holiday’s love songs are sexist and backwards. Your discomfort is just our culture politicizing a perfectly innocent expression of what are universal feelings.
Happy Wednesday, here’s Frank Sinatra with cup of tea and a donut for you! Cause we’re keepin’ it classy today. Actually I’m not sure if Sinatra was quite the paragon of class he’s made out to be, but he was suave all right. Notice the sign in the background of the video saying Music for Smokers Only. Evidently this television appearance was sponsored by a tobacco company. And Frank is doing his part to promote the product. Anyone who denies that smoking is glamorous hasn’t seen this video. That wouldn’t fly today, but back then we were so blissfully ignorant. Anyway, this song is by Cole Porter and has been, since 1934, been sung by nearly everyone who’s ever picked up a microphone, at least in the jazz department. But I think Sinatra’s version is definitive.In his heyday he pretty much defined everything he touched, so but of course. We will be revisiting this later, in a strikingly altered form though.
Huh, is this a happy Billie Holiday song we hear? She’s usually so sad. It’s almost a shock to hear her sing about having a good man. I find myself waiting for the surprise ending. Maybe because she still sounds so plaintive. Maybe because I know she never had much luck in her life, and that spilled over into her songs. Which is the conundrum of the tragic artist. Billie Holiday had a hell of a hard life and it made her the artist she was. She was one in a long long line of artists who basically sucked at living life, but left the world a better place as a result of their suffering. That leaves me wondering, as I often do, how different Holiday and others like her would have been minus the drug problems and bad lovers. Were the problems the inspiration for creativity, without which our Billie would be just another insipid pop singer? Or were the things she went through a distraction that held her back from reaching creative heights we can’t even imagine? The legend goes that the artist feeds on their pain, but yet it’s known that things like addiction and romantic loss destroy the creative urge rather than foster it. If nothing else, those things go towards foreshortening the artist’s life, never a good thing.