Billie Holiday: Carnegie Hall Concert Recorded Live

Reissue of 1956 album has the singer backed by Eldridge, Cohn, Hawkins, Burrell et al and doing rather well for one supposed to be in decline

1644

Most critics agree that by the early 1950s Billie was in vocal (and certainly physical) decline. Yet from time to time she made some memorable studio recordings on the Verve label – Solitude (1952), Music For Torching (1956), and Songs For Distingue Lovers (1956). She also made several “live” appearances.

In 1956 she was recorded at Carnegie Hall in a concert timed to accompany the publication of her ghost-written (by William H. Dufty) autobiography Lady Sings The Blues. “Choice” selections were read out (in a monotone) by New York Times journalist Gilbert Millstein. But Billie, her sense of timing perfectly intact – sang the appropriate song immediately he had finished the readings.

This was remarkable because as he later remembered, in rehearsal she was barely able to speak, let alone sing. “Her legs were swollen, she was almost incoherent, she had no more idea of what to sing than I did.” Yet when she appeared on stage (in a glamorous white evening gown) “she was erect and beautiful; poised and smiling. And when the first section of the narration was ended, she sang – with strength undiminished – with all the art that was hers.”

Billie’s biographers differ as to the quality of her voice, but concede that she was sympathetically supported by her distinguished accompanists (who were mainly restricted to obbligatos).

The LP was issued in 1961, nearly three years after her death. This vinyl reissue has improved sound, but replicates the original version of the concert. In fact, there were two performances, at 8 p.m. and midnight. According to a review in the Afro-American, she sang “about two dozen numbers, the repertory covering her top hits of the past 20 years … her projection was superlative”. It also mentioned that Strange Fruit – her most controversial recording – was performed at one (or both) of these Carnegie performances. Whatever.

As Nat Hentoff recalled (and he was there), “it was a night when Billie was on top, undeniably the best and most honest jazz singer alive”. Amen to that.

Discography
Reading from Lady Sings The Blues; Lady Sings The Blues; It Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do; Reading from Lady Sings The Blues; Travelin’ Light; Gilbert Millstein; Billie’s Blues; Body And Soul: Don’t Explain (20.03) – Yesterdays; Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone; I’ll Be Seeing You; Reading from Lady Sings The Blues; My Man; I Cried For You; Fine And Mellow; I Cover The Waterfront; Oh, What A Little Moonlight Can Do (24.05)
Holiday (v) on all tracks with collective personnel: Roy Eldridge, Buck Clayton (t); Coleman Hawkins, Al Cohn (ts); Tony Scott (p, cl); Carl Drinkard (p); Carson Smith (b); Chico Hamilton (d); Kenny Burrell (g); Gilbert Millstein (readings from Lady Sings The Blues). Carnegie Hall, New York, 10 November 1956.
Waxtime 772327