Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

September/October 2010: Allan Harris

Billie Holiday (1915-59):
The Commodore Master Takes

Written by:

A perceptive jazz fan once commented that when Ella Fitzgerald sang about her man leaving, you thought he’d gone to the corner store to pick up a loaf of bread and a carton of milk. When Billie Holiday sang that her man had left, you knew he’d packed a suitcase, caught an airplane, and was never coming back. Therein lies the power of Billie Holiday. She is the most emotionally tragic singer in the history of jazz.

Holiday was born in 1915 in Baltimore. Her real name was Eleanora Fagan Gough. She came up with the name Billie Holiday from the first name of the silent-movie actress Billy Dove and the last name of her father, Clarence Holiday. Her life was one of tragedy. Rape, prostitution, beatings, addiction, incarceration, racism, and divorce were just some of the calamities she experienced. She was the voice of tears and dark memories.

The recordings Holiday made for Commodore Records are some of the most important of her career. All sixteen songs are collected on The Commodore Master Takes (Verve/GRP #3145432722) and represent four recording sessions, one from 1939 and three from 1944.

Commodore began as a small Manhattan electronics store that gradually started selling records. While still running his store, Milt Gabler (comedian Billy Crystal’s uncle) moved into the music business by releasing records by Pee Wee Russell, Eddie Condon, and Louis Jordan.

In 1939, Holiday was hired to perform at Café Society, in Greenwich Village, New York’s first integrated nightclub outside Harlem. It was there she premiered “Strange Fruit,” which was written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish high school teacher, that became her signature song. Its lyrics describe a lynched black man hanged from a poplar tree in the American south. The first jazz song to decry racism in the States, its effect on listeners was (and still is) absolutely chilling.

At the time, Holiday was signed to Columbia Records, but both the label’s executives and her producer, John Hammond, refused to record the song, perhaps because they didn’t want to upset their southern distributors. Holiday contacted her friend Milt Gabler and asked if he would do it. In a daring move, Gabler agreed, and on April 20, 1939, Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit.” When you listen to it, you can easily understand why Time magazine hailed “Strange Fruit” as the most important song of the twentieth century and why Q, a British music magazine, named it one of the ten songs to have actually changed the world.

Holiday went on to record “Strange Fruit” several more times in her career but this is the first and definitive version. She and the band sparkle because they had been playing the song almost every night at Café Society. Pianist Sonny White’s playing is dark and rich; Holiday’s voice, at twenty-four, is sombre and pure.

The other selections included on The Commodore Master Takes are also impressive. Holiday’s slightly autobiographical composition “Fine and Mellow,” about a man who drinks, gambles, and womanizes, is powerful and unnerving. Her renditions of “Embraceable You,” “I’ll Get By,” “He’s Funny That Way,” and “I’ll Be Seeing You” are all highly expressive. Much like Louis Armstrong, Holiday makes every song, even familiar classics, hers. There is such power and melancholy in her delivery, you believe each song was written specifically for her. The harsh tone and roughness that affected her voice later in her career is nowhere to be heard. This CD features a vibrant and emotional young singer; it is the essential Billie Holiday disc to own.

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