Billie Holiday, vocals
Ray Ellis And His Orchestra
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
But, then again, dramatic, over-the-top music has everything to do with the subject of this
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
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.