Billie Holiday: Complete Commodore Masters

Well-mastered vinyl reissue with a bonus CD includes such landmark titles as Strange Fruit and Fine And Mellow


Commodore Records, the first jazz independent, was to the jazz of the 1930s and 40s what Blue Note was to the music of the 1950s and 60s. These sterling sides present Holiday at her considerable best, with only a few instrumental solos. Much of the accompaniment here is in the form of trumpet obbligati, a solitary guitar and alto solo here and there and the steady thrust of good rhythm sections.

Strange Fruit was written by Abel Meeropol, a communist professor of literature who changed his name to Lewis Allan to avoid the attentions of J Edgar Hoover. Billie was anxious to sing it and record it but Columbia, her record company refused, fearful of loss of sales in the south. Milt Gabler of Commodore told her if she could get a one-session release from her contract, he would record it. Holiday recorded the bitter song and sang it every night as her closer at Café Society where she had the lights dimmed low as she sang the last notes, indicating that no encore could possibly follow that.

The recorded version was just as powerful. Billie is bleak, slowly emphasising the dark lyrics as only she could. It starts with sombre trumpet by Frankie Newton before Billie enters slowly and sings with passion and regret. It is a moving performance. Yesterdays, which follows, seems almost peaceful by comparison until the singer gets into it and makes the lyrics point up the sadness of loss for times gone by.

Billie sings the rest of the programme here as she sang everything, making even over-familiar standards like My Old Flame and As Time Goes By sound as though they were written exclusively for her. At any rate she makes them all her own and ensures that listeners believe she means every word she sings. Billie’s Blues and Fine And Mellow are early examples of how well she could sing the blues, in a comfortable, again personal manner. There is strong, unobtrusive support from such fine accompanists as Eddie Heywood, Frankie Newton, Doc Cheatham and master drummer Sid Catlett.

This well-mastered vinyl release has a bonus in a CD tucked into the LP sleeve that contains the full programme and eight alternate takes.

Strange Fruit; Yesterdays; Fine And Mellow; I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues; How Am I To Know; My Old Flame; I’ll Get By; I Cover The Waterfront; I’ll Be Seeing You; I’m Yours; Embraceable You; As Time Goes By; He’s Funny That Way; Lover Come Back To Me; I Love My Man; On The Sunny Side Of The Street ; [CD bonus tracks] Strange Fruit; Yesterdays; I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues; My Old Flame; I’ll Get By; I Cover The Waterfront; I’ll Be Seeing You; As Time Goes By (76.28)
Holiday (v) with various combos including Frankie Newton, Doc Cheatham (t); Vic Dickinson (tb); Lem Davis (as); Eddie Heywood (p); John Simmons (b); Sid Catlett (d). NYC, 20 April 1939, 25 March, 1 & 8 April 1944.
Groove Replica 77036