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Billie Holiday - Lady In Satin

Artist : Billie Holiday
Album : Lady In Satin
Year : 1958
Label : Columbia / Legacy
billie holiday

Personnel : Billie Holiday: Vocals | Ray Ellis : Conductor and Arrangements

I've got to sing with Ray Ellis' Lady Day said and 'I want this album more than anything else, and I want it to be good'. So Lady In Satin was conceived.

When Billie Holiday wrote her own autobiography 'Lady Sings The Blues' in collaboration with William Dufty (which was made into a film starring Diana Ross in 1972) she revealed the life behind her voice, Few singers have suffered so much, paid such dues for a career and had to so few good memories of fame as she did'. - Irving Townsend quoted on her album sleeve.

Born Eleonora Fagan in 1915 in Philidelphia she spent most of her childhood in Baltimore, Maryland, Her mother gave birth to her at an early age to a father Clarence Holiday, who was himself a successfull jazz musician in that era. However he was rarely present during her upbringing and her mother Sadie married Philip Gough in 1920 which was a short lived affair and the young and vulnerable Eleonora was to attend the House Of Good Shepherd which was a home for troubled young females. There she was sexually assaulted and this was just the beginning of a troubled journey which was to decline even further.

Lady Day found solace in music and would sing along to artists of the day such as Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong and moved with her mother to New York in the late 1920's where she would work in a house of prostitution in Harlem for a time.

Her journey led her to work as a vocalist in jazz clubs in Harlem and it was there that she was discovered by 'Friend To The Jazz Fraternity' John Hammond who was to get her work with the Benny Goodman Orchestra. She went on to record with pianist Teddy Wilson and others in 1935 and later that year she appeared with Duke Ellington in the film 'Symphony In Black'.

She met saxophonist Lester Young who gave her the nickname Lady Day in 1937 and she returned the favour by calling him Prez. They were 'Just Friends'.

Through the years Lady Day sang many songs of her troublesome relationships and her distinct meloncholy delivery on many are translated in songs like 'T'aint Nobody's Business If I Do' and 'My Man'.

Fast forward to 1958 and her name was now legendary in the jazz world and although she had been suffering a lack of record sales through previous tepid recordings due to her drug and alcohol addictions, this recording was to catapult her once again into the limelight of the jazz world and was set to be a seminal collaboration with one of the up-and-coming arrangers working for the Columbia stable.

All of the songs on the project were 'new to her' and were delivered with her rougher sounding voice, which incidentally had a vocal range of just over an octave, but could convey a great emotional intensity like few others.

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Billie Holiday - Lady In Satin

Lady Day had an accurate sense of intonation and melody that could produce the emotional, bluesy phrasing which was more usually associated with instrumentals.

Lady In Satin was recorded in just 3 days with The Ray Ellis Orchestra and a female voice choir and included a number of soloists including trumpeter Mel Davis and trombonist JJ Johnson. The songs speak of a desperate love, deep longings and a life of unrequitted yearning which many thought were a testament to episodes in her own life.

Ray Ellis commented at the time that Lady Day choose the songs according to the merits of the lyrics without thinking too much about the melodies or the harmonies. For her to sing these songs she had to study the lyrics carefully and interpret the composition by putting herself in the place of the narrator. The selections formed the basis which would represent fully the story of her own life.

Despite the efforts of Ray Ellis to rehearse with Lady Day before the recording begain in February 19th 1958 he soon realised that he would have to finalise the arrangements without her, but after a discussion with Irving Townsend they decided to use a female choir and also to include some jazz soloists in order to add a bluesy and more swinging feel to the set.

As well as the orchestra Ellis had a core of jazz musicians including the aforementioned Mel Davis on trumpet, JJ Johnson on trombone but also included Mal Waldron on piano, Barry Galbraith on guitar, Milt Hinton on bass and Osie Johnson on drums. Urbie Green and Tom Mitchell also played trombones on the recordings during the three days.

As for the songs themselves there are some standout songs, mainly for their background stories including 'I'm A Fool To Want You' which was written by Frank Sinatra in 1951 for his wife Ava Gardner at the time and 'For Heaven's Sake' which Holiday sang in a world-weary tone as her voice was so fragile and quiet at times that Ellis had to adjust to the mood to accomodate it. Working with an orchestra is much different than working with a jazz quartet and Lady Day loved the sensation of the 'space' being filled with sound. Director of radio station KGF in Los Angeles John Magnus said 'It was as if everything was covered in wallpaper'.

With the exception of a handful of songs recorded again with Ray Ellis in March 1959 'Lady In Satin' was to be the swansong for the wonderful Lady Day who passed away later that year.

Review by Wes George
(former Webmaster & Marketer with Sony Jazz)

Similar Artists - Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone, Peggy Lee, Blossom Dearie, Doris Day, Dinah Washington, Brenda Lee, Julie London, Chris Connor.

Previously : John Coltrane
Next Time : Dave Brubeck

* Also see :- The History Of Jazz
* Also see :- Louis Armstrong Biography
* Also see :- Dave Brubeck Biography
* Also see :- John Hammond Biography
* Also see :- Nica de Koenigswarter Biography
* Also see :- 52nd Street
* Also see :- Tin Pan Alley

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