Jazz is no stranger to the search for perfection, but sometimes an album comes along that blows everything else out of the water through sheer emotional impact alone. That’s certainly the case with Billie Holiday’s Lady In Satin (1958), which catches both the singers musical genius and deteriorating health little more than a year before her death aged just 44.
Jazz critic Nick Lea picks up the story of one of the most iconic jazz albums of all time.
Lady In Satin is often regarded as a classic yet perhaps, given Billie Holiday’s personal struggles at the time, it shouldn’t have been made at all.
More than sixty years after its release it’s a recording which still stirs controversy and adoration; one is struck by the poignancy of the lyrics delivered by a voice that, at times, struggles to get through the song.
Following two decades of artistic triumphs, there’s a strong case for saying that she was past her prime towards the end of her life, following years of documented alcohol and drug abuse.
And yet, as we’ll see, the result was something quite magical.
How Did We Get Here?
The story of Lady In Satin is not complete without knowing a little about how she got there.
Emerging in the mid-1930s, the world was introduced (with the help of her friend and frequent collaborator Lester Young) to one of the most unique and individual jazz singers of all time.
The recordings of that period reveal a sensitivity and depth of understanding that has rarely been equalled. Listening to their performances of jazz standards like Mean To Me, Easy Living and Fine & Mellow, it almost feels as if one is eavesdropping on a private conversation, so intimate and tender is the intuitive rapport between them.
It was in fact Lester Young who gave her the nickname Lady Day. She, in return, called him Pres (short for ‘President’) indicating the stature in which he was held as one of the major tenor saxophone influences of the time.
As the 1930s drew to a close, and her career was on a high, Holiday recorded the protest song ‘Strange Fruit’ which told of lynchings through an Abel Meeropol poem. Rejected by her label at the time, it set the tone of an artist who maintained a deep sense of independence, passion and sense of justice.
What followed was a period of great financial and artistic success for Billie Holiday, alongside a darker dependency on narcotics and alcohol which not only had a damaging and lasting effect on her voice, but saw her sentenced to a spell in prison.
It’s on top of this backdrop that we pick up the story of Lady In Satin.
Setting The Scene: Early 50s Holiday
By the early 1950s Billie Holiday’s health was deteriorating quickly and her voice suffering the effects of addiction. What she did retain though was her affecting way of phrasing the lyrics of her chosen songs; the voice may have lost its elasticity and range, but the emotional impact of her singing was greatly enhanced.
Whilst both these albums featured the singer in small-group format, she still dreamt of making an album with orchestra. This record, which cast the much-admired Ray Ellis as arranger, began to crystallise in late 1957 when she signed another contract with Columbia Records and discussed it with producer Irving Townsend.
Her insistence on the lush strings was perhaps a calculated decision based on her health at the time.
“She wanted that cushion under her voice. She wanted to be flattered by that kind of sound” the producer later recounted in discussion with author Julia Blackburn.
“…she said she wanted a pretty album, something delicate. She said this over and over.”
As was the case back then, things moved quickly. Repertoire was discussed in a phone call in January 1958 and the sessions scheduled for the following week.
Recording Lady In Satin
Ray Ellis tried without success to make contact with the singer and, as expected, Holiday arrived late for the first of the recording sessions.
When she did arrive, Ellis was surprised to see how much she had deteriorated and how bad her physical health was. Her voice had been ravaged by drugs and alcohol and Ellis later confessed with been disappointed with the resulting performances.
It wasn’t until after the sessions were complete that the arranger realised what an effort it had been to complete the recording and how much Holiday had given of herself in doing so.
Billie had selected songs that she not previously recorded, including some she was not familiar with at all.
With the help of pianist Mal Waldron, who coached her through the materials the day before the recording, Holiday spent three nights laying down her vocals on a highly biographical album. None of the songs are performed perfectly, but what makes the music so special is the emotional impact that every song contains.
Each is heartfelt and real in a way that not has been heard before. Her voice may have been fragile, but her sound and unique phrasing were very much intact.
Fools and Love
This fragility is clearly heard on the first track recorded.
Holiday’s intonation on ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’, may be imperfect, but the conviction of her interpretation of the lyrics is nothing short of phenomenal.
Ellis’s arrangement is unobtrusive, giving just the right amount of support and plenty of space, whilst trumpeter, Mel Davis players a wonderfully astute and concise solo.
The opening track on the final release was the iconic Frank Sinatra hit song “I’m a Fool to Want You” in which Holiday picks up the story inspired by the composer’s tumultuous transition from wife Nancy to actress Ava Gardner.
Well-worn songs by the likes of Hoagy Carmichael, Jimmy Van Heusen and Rodgers & Hart all get the orchestral treatment, with tunes like “Glad To Be Unhappy” and “For Heaven’s Sake” poignant given the singer’s personal struggles.
Lady In Satin Solos
While the album is not about the soloists, Mel Davis was not the only musician involved whose contributions in that department – albeit it short – deserve special mention.
J. J. Johnson provides some superb and sensitive playing on ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well’ and ‘Glad To Be Unhappy’, whilst fellow trombonist Urbie Green shines on “I’m a Fool to Want You” and “It’s Easy to Remember”.
Billie Holiday in Mono/Stereo
As was customary at the time, Lady In Satin was released in both stereo and mono formats.
A mix-up at the studio, though, meant that one title, ‘The End of a Love Affair’ was only recorded in mono.
Having been rejected as unsatisfactory on day two, it was held over until the third and final session on February 21st where it was recorded in mono, thus depriving listeners of the stereo version of one of the most breath-taking performances on an already-emotional album.
The Legacy of Lady Day
Billie Holiday died on July 17th 1959, little more than a year after the album’s release.
As her penultimate recording (and the final one released in her lifetime) it’s up to you, the listener, to decide whether it is her last great masterpiece, or a snapshot of an artist in decline.
There may well be better recordings from that latter half of the 1950s, but arguably none with the emotional intensity that Holiday brings to this selection of songs.
For someone looking for an introduction to her genius, Lady In Satin is perhaps not the first choice; many early Billie Holiday recordings take care of that much better.
However once one has become acquainted with the music and life of Lady Day, the story is not complete without hearing the heart-wrenching emotion towards the end of her life.
Lady In Satin – Album Information
Recorded: February 19 – 21, 1958
Released: June 1958
Record Label: Columbia Records
Album Number: CL 1157 [penultimatein mono] / CS 8048 [stereo]
Side One – I’m a Fool to Want You / For Heaven’s Sake / You Don’t Know What Love Is / I Get Along Without You Very Well / For All We Know / Violets for Your Furs
Side Two – You’ve Changed / It’s Easy to Remember / But Beautiful/ Glad to Be Unhappy / I’ll Be Around / The End of a Love Affair [mono only]
Billie Holiday – lead vocals
Ray Ellis – conductor
Mal Waldron – piano
Barry Galbraith – guitar;
Milt Hinton – double bass
Osie Johnson – drums
Trumpets – Mel Davis (solos on “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and “But Beautiful”), Billy Butterfield, Jimmy Ochner & Bernie Glow
Trombones: J.J. Johnson (solo on “Glad to be Unhappy and “I Get Along Without you”), Urbie Green (solos on “I’m a Fool to Want You” and “It’s Easy to Remember”), Jack Green, Tommy Mitchell (bass trombone)
Orchestra: George Ockner – violin and leader; Emmanual Green – violin; Harry Hoffman – violin; Harry Katzmann – violin; Leo Kruczek – violin; Milton Lomask – violin; Harry Meinikoff – violin; David Newman – violin; Samuel Rand – violin; David Sarcer – violin; Sid Brecher – viola; Richard Dichler – viola; David Soyer – cello; Maurice Brown – cello; Janet Putman – harp; Danny Bank – flute; Phil Bodner – flute; Romeo Penque – flute; Tom Parshley – flute & Choir: Elise Bretton – backing vocals; Miriam Workman – backing vocals