Billie Holiday, vocals

Ray Ellis And His Orchestra
Columbia, 1958

Oh, shit. That's what I said last night to the three other folks who were sharing a little bit of jazz space with me. We'd gotten finished enjoying Shirley Horn and Robbie Zappulla. The story of Rob's fabulous version of "If You Could See Me Now" (Tadd Dameron) is what recording studio legend is made of. Rob aced a soaring trumpet solo on the very first take — and I recall Rob telling me that the producer almost erased it.

That has absolutely nothing to do with the subject of this piece.

But, then again, dramatic, over-the-top music has everything to do with the subject of this piece.

So why "Oh, shit?" I pulled out "Lady In Satin;" Lady Day's dream come true. She arrived on the soundstage and saw the big band and told Ray Ellis that she was absolutely thrilled and flattered. It went down hill from there. She sat down in the booth and started smoking cigarettes and drinking. And singing.

The problem is that the album is so astoundingly depressing it's really, really hard to take. Holiday was doomed. It's absolutely amazing that they didn't spend two months in the studio just to get a clear take of each of the dozen tunes on this romp. I mean, the woman was nodding and they actually had to splice a couple of the takes to get something that was acceptable.

Nobody from Columbia's production team was in the studio for the recording. That's a far cry from the over-produced, micro-managed sessions we endure today. Irving Townshend produced this peculiar session; he was assisted by engineer Fred Plaut. Ray Ellis, conductor of the big band who also arranged all of the selections, stayed outside the booth but for one or two times he wanted to hear the tape re-played.

It's a horrible irony that by 1958 Billie Holiday's voice was shot, however, the Ampex tape recorder would reproduce the nails-on-blackboard rawness of her last years with a breathtakingly spooky level of fidelity, particularly compared to the very limited bandwidth of earlier tape and wire-recorder systems. This album was one of the hundred or so that were issued in both monaural and stereo versions, released at the same time. Recording Billie Holiday at this point in her career with such up-to-the-minute technical advances was not unlike recording an elementary school marching band with a Nagra tape deck and $50,000 worth of Sennheiser microphones. Oh, shit.

Critics have hurled barbs at Ray Ellis's arrangements. Yeah, they were saccharine. In fact, I'll go as far as saying that Ellis became a caricature of himself, cautiously erring on the side of classical tradition. Now, layer Holiday's "croak(ing)" atop charts that would make Lawrence Welk proud (according to one reviewer... the croaking part) and the combination becomes a surreal, complex work of art.

She was smashed. The liner notes to the Columbia re-master of the album tell the story of a gaffer who was adjusting microphone cables and who happened to be very thirsty. After a day's session ended, he entered Holiday's sound booth, and, seeing what was ostensibly a pitcher of water drank deeply out of it.

It wasn't water. It was pure gin.

Columbia's re-master producer, Phil Schaap, was so heartless he provided us with the entirety of the tape that records in fantastic detail Ms. Holiday's crash landing when, after an assistant turned off the monitor speaker in her booth, she drooled on and on for more than five minutes before realizing that she was singing to herself (and, of course, the Ampex machine) and had strayed off into her own private (un-accompanied) world. The song, "I'm a Fool To Want You" is given two alternative takes on the 1997 digital reissue. Schaap also pays too much attention to the high-drama "The End Of A Love Affair," on which Ellis's shrill, severe string arrangements prove particularly unsettling.

By now you're probably wondering why I invested not only in the Columbia CD but also in an original copy of the '58 vinyl (stereo) album. I am not a masochist. But boy, do I love to drink.

You get a bottle of booze and drink half of it and then put the damned record on and let Billie cry for you. That's it.

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