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CD Review: Billie Holiday At Storyville

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One of the great misconceptions of the arts is that an artist has to have a “tortured soul” to produce great work. If they haven’t experienced suffering and hardship there’s no point in listening to what they record, reading what they write, or looking at what they paint. The thing is that most artists could have done without the agony, thank you very much.

You see it’s not the artist’s suffering that produces the great art. It’s their sensitivity to the world around them that allows them to produce great art, which also causes their suffering. They feel too much in a society where to feel is to be shunned, end up being taken advantage of, and live a life of quiet desperation looking for some sort of relief.

There can come a point when the “artistic suffering” actually becomes a detriment to their work. The booze or the drugs they use to offer them relief from a world they are too vulnerable to live in takes its toll on their abilities to produce, perform, and present their art.

“Billie Holiday…her life was terrifying sequence of tragedies, but by the mysterious processes of artistic creation, her sufferings enabled her to communicate intense feelings to her listeners. It is not squeamishness to prefer hearing Billie when she was able to give an insight into the whole range of human emotions, rather than listen to those recordings which present the sounds of a sick woman in despair.” John Chilton, Billie’s Blues, Quartet Books.

Billie Holiday was born April 7th 1915 and died July 17th 1959. Early details of her life are confusing, but according to her she was the child of a 13-year-old mother and 15-year-old father who weren’t married until she was three years old.

She recorded her first song in 1933 at the age of 18, “My Mother’s Son In-Law,” and by 1934 had secured her success as a singer through a masterful performance at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. As a black performer she was subject to dealing with colour laws of the time, which meant that when performing for white audiences, she was sequestered in a room by herself to spare the audience her presence except when on stage.

Drugs, alcohol abuse, and abusive husbands dotted her life, and her career was interrupted by an eight-month stint in jail for possession of narcotics. This jail sentence caused her New York City Cabaret Card to be revoked, which meant that for the last 12 years of her life she was prohibited from performing in the clubs of that city.

New York City’s loss was the rest of the world’s gain and she toured throughout the United States and Europe for the rest of her life. Along the way she took songs and made them her own to such an extent that even to this day they are identified with her. “Strange Fruit,” “God Bless The Child” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” are just three songs that carry the imprint of her unique styling down through the ages.

One of the clubs that benefited form Billie’s banning by New York was Boston impresario George Wein’s Storyville. Not only did he stock it with an amazing house band, but he created an atmosphere that was relaxed and easy for the musicians. This also created ideal conditions for live recordings. Accordingly a local Boston Radio station would regularly broadcast live shows from where ever Mr.Wein had established his club for the occasion. (It doesn’t seem to have had a permanent location but floated from hotel to hotel through out the greater Boston area.)

The recordings on Billie Holiday At Storyville come from two separate appearances she made in the early fifties, 1951 and 1953. On each occasion she is not only accompanied by whoever else Mr.Wein had booked to play for the week, but some of her own band. No doubt this contributed to the ease she so obviously feels while performing.

Even though the harshness of her life has started to affect her voice, even in the earlier concert, it is her phrasing that has always distinguished her from other vocalists. Her ability to imbue lyrics with every nuance of emotion due them without resorting to histrionics is a lesson vocalists of both sexes seem yet to have learnt.

Listen to how easily her voice and the tenor sax exchange the melody line on a song, passing off to each other seamlessly as if she were just another instrument in the band. From the defiant (and heartbreaking: listen to the lyrics and tell me if you don’t think a man wrote this, and if any female vocalist today would sing those lyrics) “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” to desperate sadness, “I Cover The Waterfront,” and loving devotion, “I Loves You Porgy,” Billie Holiday can evoke it all.

She’s not acting a part either; she’s feeling each emotion that’s felt in those songs and plopping it in the audience’s lap. There’s no pretence or pose on any of the songs she performs in these recordings, you just know in some part of you that she’s revealing parts of her own soul for you.

These recordings are free of the demons that plagued her for most of her life; she’s so obviously enjoying herself that I could picture her smiling to herself as she rocked, perched on her stool or standing at the microphone, and felt the music within her.

Even if she’s forced to almost talk segments of some songs because her voice no longer has the range to hit all the notes, those catches only serve to create an intimacy that is too often lost on live albums. That intimacy is emphasized by this recording’s producer’s choice to leave the radio show tapes intact, down to the introduction from the disc jockey at the earlier show.

The only drawback to this otherwise impeccable collection is the source material. In some of the mixes Miss Holiday’s voice is nearly swallowed by the horn section, while in others the sound quality is not what we have come to expect. But considering the primitiveness of the recording equipment compared to what we now have at our disposal, we should be grateful for any concerts being recorded at all during that time.

I’m not a big fan of Frank Sinatra as a man or a performer but I can’t disagree with his assessment of Billie Holiday: “It is Billie Holiday, whom I first heard in 52nd Street clubs in the nineteen-thirties, who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence.”

Billie Holiday at Storyville is a great opportunity to listen to her at her most relaxed and certain of herself. Although she may have lost some of her vocal prowess by then, these are still great performances that will complement anyone’s collection.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site He has been writing for since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.