BILLIE HOLIDAY: THE COMPLETE DECCA RECORDINGS (1944-1950; 1991)
CD I: 1) Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?); 2) No More; 3) No More (Alternate); 4) That Ole Devil Called Love; 5) Don't Explain (First Version); 6) Big Stuff (First Version); 7) Don't Explain; 8) Big Stuff (Second Version); 9) You Better Go Now; 10) What Is This Thing Called Love; 11) Good Morning Heartache; 12) No Good Man (Previously Unissued Alternate); 13) No Good Man; 14) Big Stuff (Previously Unissued Breakdown and Chatter); 15) Big Stuff (Previously Unissued Third Version); 16) Big Stuff; 17) Baby, I Don't Cry Over You (Previously Unissued Alternate); 18) Baby, I Don't Cry Over You; 19) I'll Look Around (Previously Unissued Alternate); 20) I'll Look Around; 21) The Blues Are Brewin'; 22) Guilty (Previously Unissued Alternate); 23) Guilty (Previously Unissued Breakdown and Chatter); 24) Guilty; 25) Deep Song; 26) There Is No Greater Love;
CD II: 1) Easy Living; 2) Solitude (Previously Unissued Alternate); 3) Solitude; 4) Weep No More; 5) Girls Were Made To Take Care Of Boys; 6) I Loves You Porgy; 7) My Man (Mon Homme) (Previously Unissued Alternate); 8) My Man (Mon Homme); 9) 'Tain't Nobody's Business If I Do (Previously Unissued Alternate); 10) 'Tain't Nobody's Business If I Do; 11) Baby Get Lost; 12) Keeps On A-Rainin'; 13) Them There Eyes; 14) Do Your Duty; 15) Gimme A Pigfoot (And A Bottle Of Beer); 16) You Can't Lose A Broken Heart; 17) My Sweet Hunk O' Trash; 18) Now Or Never; 19) You're My Thrill; 20) Crazy He Calls Me; 21) Please Tell Me Now; 22) Somebody's On My Mind; 23) God Bless The Child; 24) This Is Heaven to Me.
It was Milt Gabler who arranged for Billie's transfer to Decca, where she could hope for at least as efficient a degree of promotion as on Columbia. True enough, it was only during the Decca years that she became a commercial superstar (and a heroin wreck as a side effect), starting with 'Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be)', one of the biggest hits of 1944 and, from then on, one of the lady's signature tunes — even if it has no more than a hundredth part of the snap-and-bite of 'Strange Fruit' (but let us not forget to be realistic: there was no way that 'Strange Fruit' could have been a commercial hit back in its time).
Strange enough, during her six years at Decca, Billie did not record all that much. Where Columbia's and Verve's Complete boxsets each include around 10 CDs, the Complete Decca boxset — alternate outtakes and all — only includes two. One of the reasons must have been drug trouble (she spent most of 1947 and early 1948 in court / prison), but even in her «law-free» years, relatively few sessions were held. Of these, the earliest bunch is the most historically important, because it introduces a new element in Billie's world: orchestration.
Frankly, I cannot allow myself to «like» these string arrangements. They are generic, Hollywoodish, Broadway musical-ish, whatever. According to legend, Billie requested strings herself for 'Lover Man', and was extremely pleased to finally get them. Perhaps she felt she was crossing some sort of line there — the line that separated a local mini-celebrity from a big national star. If the presence of strings boosted her confidence, so be it, especially since her vocal work on these mid-Fourties recordings is impeccable. But in retrospect, it almost looks like her very essence is giving battle to these strings — the very unusualness of her vocal approach clashes so vehemently against the formulaic nature of the orchestral arrangements, it is almost as if her brain wanted to do it, but her soul was all against it.
Leave it to Billie, though — for all I know, she could have been backed by trivial synth-pop arrangements and still sound like nothing else. On all of these recordings, her vocals still show no serious signs of wear and tear, and the humane depth of expression that peaked during her Commodore sessions remains so much intact that individual highlights are unselectable: all of these songs are just about equally great, regardless of the intrinsic melodic potential of each individual tune (which, honestly, much of the time I still cannot tell apart).
Special reference must only be made to a few «unusual» stunts pulled off by Lady Day in the late 1940s. First, there is a whole bunch of Bessie Smith covers here, and they are the only true disappointment of the set for me: for some reason, she chose to perform some of the Empress of the Blues' most «aggressive» numbers — 'Do Your Duty' and 'Gimme A Pigfoot', in particular, are no match for Bessie's temper and brawn, and cannot be easily recast in Billie's mold; she seems to be stuck somewhere in between a radical reinvention and a faithful tribute, failing at both. 'T'Ain't Nobody's Business' goes along better, since the song's message is «brawny» only on the surface — at the bottom of it, it is a wife's declaration of her right to be beaten by her husband, and Billie rightfully gives it the same vibe she gives her classic number 'My Man'. (Any feminist extolling Miss Holiday as an icon should take a close listen here).
Far more successful are the two duets with Louis Armstrong — 'My Sweet Hunk O' Trash', in particular, with its bittersweet dialog between the two legends, is awesome beyond belief (Billie and Satchmo would also work together in New Orleans, Billie's only movie — in general, a disaster, but with one unforgettable scene at least). There are also a few tracks on which Billie is backed by The Stardusters, a proto-doo-wop vocal group, but this approach does not work at all. Lady Day is incompatible with extraneous harmonies. A duet with Louis — by all means, but any attempt at «glamorizing» her sound belies its essence.
Overall, the Decca recordings will be most valuable to those who treasure the lady in fine voice: by 1952 (the beginning of her Verve LP-dominated period), it was already crack(l)ing. The abundance of alternate versions is a bonus for completists and fine specialists only, since the alternate takes do not usually differ all that much from the officially released versions. That said, the Armstrong/Holiday duets are priceless; 'Lover Man' is a historical watermark that should be familiar to everyone; and even the strings, provided they annoy you in the first place, eventually go away, replaced by steady small jazz combo arrangements like it used to be. Thus, thumbs up without any further doubts on the subject.
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