BILLIE HOLIDAY: LADY SINGS THE BLUES (1956)
1) Lady Sings The Blues; 2) Trav'lin' Light; 3) I Must Have That Man; 4) Some Other Spring; 5) Strange Fruit; 6) No Good Man; 7) God Bless The Child; 8) Good Morning Heartache; 9) Love Me Or Leave Me; 10) Too Marvelous For Words; 11) Willow Weep For Me; 12) I Thought About You.
This is not a very important release for those who savor Billie's career in chronological order; nevertheless, it is still one of her best-known late period albums, since it is somewhat conceptual – released as a «companion piece» to her famous autobiography of the same name: ghostwritten, actually, by William Dufty from Billie's recollections, but still historically important for a number of reasons (a black artist candidly writing about the intricacies of childhood abuse and heroin addiction was still quite a novel thing in 1956). The franchise then culminated in a couple shows at Carnegie Hall in December, where Billie's performances were accompanied by readouts from the book (a large chunk of the show is available on the Complete Verve boxset as well).
Thus, Lady Sings The Blues is somewhat of a retrospective album – all re-recordings, except for the title track, specially written by Billie herself for the occasion, and, today, one of her visit cards, along with 'Strange Fruit' and 'God Bless The Child', which, not coincidentally, are also rerecorded for this session of June 1956. (Four of the songs are, however, taken from an earlier session in September 1954, again, creating a slightly uncomfortable dissonance between two different stages of the lady's voice).
The backing tracks on the session are nothing outstanding to write home about (where have you gone, Mr. Peterson?), and the old classics are not exactly reinvented, either: the best I can say about this performance of 'Strange Fruit' is that the subtle horror is still there, neither grown nor diminished. In a way, one could say that, as Billie got older, her voice was compensating for extra hoarseness and creakiness with an additional thin thread of wisdom-and-experience, so I could understand someone preferring this version of 'God Bless The Child', burdened with twenty-five additional years of ups and downs, to the original Columbia recording.
But then it may just be better to take this record as one large whole — lady does not so much sing the blues here as she sings her past, alternating darker and lighter numbers to come up with an adequate representation of her own importance. And 1956 was an important year for her: on the heels of clever (and totally justifiable, in this case) marketing, she at least had the pleasure of receiving widespread acclaim and acceptance — crowned with the Carnegie Hall performances — during her lifetime, even if she did not get to enjoy it too long.