Vocalists

24. Getz/Gilberto

GG1Record: Getz/Gilberto
Artist: Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto
Released: Verve Records, 1964

This collection of vinyl that once was my father's but now belongs to me is more than just a sentimental link to a man I never knew. What he amassed over twenty years or so now stands as something of an archive of jazz history. It isn't unique -- I'm sure there are thousands of people like me who have collections that were passed down from jazz lovers like my father -- but it's still important.

Some of the records I've already written about -- and lots yet to come -- are obvious classics. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Dave Brubeck, and more are well represented, and if you look at someone's list of the "best jazz records of all-time," you can be sure that ninety percent of them are in my collection. (There is, however, one glaring omission, something I'll write about at some point.)

But it's the unexpected records that have been the most interesting. I'd never heard of Chico Hamilton, for example, until I pulled out his record and discovered it had been recorded twenty minutes from my house.

And there's today's record. I was familiar with Stan Getz, but I knew nothing about Joao Gilberto until I started spinning their collaboration. When I first began this project my idea was that I would take out a record on Sunday morning and write about it in the moment as I listened for the first time. That plan didn't last long. Now I typically listen to the record all week before doing some research and eventually writing about it over the weekend. It's a much deeper experience, and the immersion has been wonderful.

Listening to Getz/Gilberto over the past several days has been interesting. The music has slowly grown on me, becoming more interesting with each passing day. Getz's tenor sax is smooth and relaxing, and Gilberto's lyrics are melodic syllables devoid of meaning, unless you speak Portuguese, but rich in emotion.

This is consistently ranked as one of the best jazz albums of all time, and probably not just because of what we hear on the record. The cover exclaims, "America's top jazz tenor joins Brazil's great young singer in the most exciting album of the year." Indeed, this album began the explosion of bossa nova, not just in the United States but around the world. It's an easy listening genre that fits nicely into the background of a dinner party but is still worthy of a close listen with a set of headphones.

You might not think you know bossa nova, but I assure you that you do. The opening track of this record is one of the most famous songs ever recorded, "The Girl from Ipanema." It's estimated that it has been recorded more times than any pop single save the Beatles' "Yesterday," and I'm certain that everyone reading this could easily hum along and perhaps sing some of the lyrics.

Tall and tan and young and lovely
The girl from Ipanema goes walking
And when she passes
Each one she passes goes, "Ah."

The song and those lyrics are so ubiquitous that they've become a cliché, but this was the first recording. Joao Gilberto sings the first few verses in Portuguese, but then Astrud Gilberto, his wife and the only bilingual Brazillian in the studio at the time, finishes with the familiar English lyrics. It's a time capsule from another century, but it swings in any era.

The lyrics were written by Vinicius de Moraes (Portuguese) and Norman Gimbel (English). Gimbel's verses aren't direct translations of what Moraes wrote, but they extend the theme. Moraes was inspired by an actual girl, Helô Pinheiro, who often walked past a bar he frequented, drawing the attention -- and whistles -- of the patrons. Years later, Moraes wrote that she was "the paradigm of the young... golden teenage girl, a mixture of flower and mermaid, full of light and grace, the sight of whom is also sad, in that she carries with her, on her route to the sea, the feeling of youth that fades, of the beauty that is not ours alone—it is a gift of life in its beautiful and melancholic constant ebb and flow."

Moraes was not the first to write about fleeting beauty. In William Shakespeare's "Sonnet 18" he writes to a (possible) love interest, one who possesses beauty so pure that not even time can steal it away. 

And every fair from fair sometimes declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade...

Like Moraes centuries hence, Shakespeare found inspiration in beauty. His muse might have been a young man in London while Moraes's was a teenage girl in Rio de Janeiro, but the message is the same. Some things are timeless; some beauty never fades. 

It's clear, however, that Moraes wasn't familiar with the sonnet, or at least that he wasn't as bold as the Bard. In Shakespeare's closing couplet he reveals the secret behind his inspiration's immortality:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, 
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Shakespeare knew then that his sonnet would live forever and keep that moment in time alive, along with his subject's beauty. Four centuries later, we know he was right. Moraes might not have had such aspirations when he wrote his lyrics, but the result has been the same. Thanks to his original lyrics, Gimbel's English addition, and the work here of Getz and both Gilbertos, the girl from Ipanema will always be "Tall and tan and young and lovely." Always.

GG3

Side 1
The Girl from Ipanema
Doralice
Para Machucar Meu Coração
Desafinado

Side 2
Corcovado
Só Danço Samba
O Grande Amor
Vivo Sonhando

GG2


23. Ella at Duke's Place

EllaDuke1Record: Ella at Duke's Place
Artist: Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington
Released: Verve Records, 1965

This month Rolling Stone magazine released its list of the top 200 singers of all time. If we put aside the foolishness of such an endeavor and forgive the authors for the fact that they're actually in the business of generating clicks and comments and subscriptions, we must admit that it would be a fun activity to crack open some beers with a few friends and take turns linking your phones to a bluetooth speaker on the table as you make your case for one singer or another. Do you prefer Bono or Bruce? Mariah or Whitney? John, Paul, George, or Ringo?

But lists like these exist only to spark debate. So here's my quibble with this particular list. When I first clicked on the link, I went straight to number one (Aretha Franklin, if you must know), and scrolled backwards looking for one name in particular, fully expecting to find it in the top ten. Or at least the top twenty. Maybe the top thirty or forty? But it wasn't until I got to #45 that I found the name I was looking for -- Ella Fitzgerald.

(Perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised. When the magazine produced a top 100 back in 2008, Ella didn't even make the list. Also of note, Mariah Carey jumped from #79 in 2008 to #5 this year, and Whitney Houston climbed from #34 to #2. It's not an exact science, apparently.)

The thing about Ella Fitzgerald is that she's unlike any singer you'll ever hear. I don't want to diminish the work of modern musicians like Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande, brilliant artists in their own right, but Lady Ella's career spanned more than six decades, or roughly the combined age of those two ingenues. 

But it's Ella's versatility, not just her longevity, that truly sets her apart. This collaboration with Duke Ellington highlights everything she can do. As the record opens with "Something to Live For," the first track on what's called "The Pretty, the Lovely, the Tender, the Hold-Me-Close Side" of the record, Ella hits the listener with a line as syrupy smooth as anything Billie Holiday might sing:

I have almost everything a human could desire,
Cars and houses, bear-skin rugs to lie before my fire.
But there's something missing,
Something isn't there,
It seems I'm never kissing the one whom I care for.
I want something to live for...

It's a classic standard from composer Billy Strayhorn (though Ellington gets a credit as well), but Ella makes it her own, putting her soul into every syllable of a song she'd one day name as her favorite. From there she makes her way through four other ballads, including "I Like the Sunrise," a hopeful Ellington tune commissioned for a 1947 celebration marking the centennial of Liberia's independence.

All of it's thoroughly gorgeous, but it's the flip side, "The Finger-Snapping, Head-Shaking, Toe-Tapping, Go-For-Yourself Side" that I can't get enough of. The opening track, "Imagine My Frustration," teeters between blues and something close to rock and roll, and the energy only seems to build as the record spins towards the closing song.

Remember the versatility I mentioned? Ella Fitzgerald, the Queen of Jazz, opens the record with a song that evokes a lounge singer on stage, perhaps leaning forlornly against a piano with cigarette smoke gently spiraling through the single beam of a spotlight. And she finishes with another Ellington tune, "Cotton Tail," a high-tempo vehicle for Ella to unleash her trademark scatting, a vocal styling in which she leaves lyrics behind and allows her voice to become an instrument alongside the horns in Ellington's band. 

And it's truly amazing. If improvisation is the cornerstone of jazz performance, Ella is one of the few vocalists to fully embrace the possibility of vocal improvisation. This track allows her to have a call-and-response conversation with Ellington saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, with each artist laying down a bar or two before listening to an echo from the other. (Take a look at this amazing video of a live performance recorded just a few months after the studio recording. Ella and Paul trade licks side by side at the front of the stage for more than two glorious minutes.) 

Fifty-seven years later "Cotton Tail" is mind-blowing, but the reaction in the moment was no different. According to Leonard Feather's liner notes, "When the final tape was played back, the orchestra and everyone else present burst into applause. Grinning in happy embarrassment, Ella said, 'Aw, you're just saying that because you are in a hurry to get out of here!' But I suspect she knew, just as we all did, that nothing could top the inspiration of this magnificent take."

Six decades later, nothing does.

EllaDuke3

Side 1
"The Pretty, the Lovely, the Tender, the Hold-Me-Close Side"
1. Something to Live For
2. A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing
3. Passion Flower
4. I Like the Sunrise
5. Azure

Side 2
"The Finger-Snapping, Head-Shaking, Toe-Tapping, Go-For-Yourself Side"
1. Imagine My Frustration
2. Duke's Place
3. Brownskin Gal in the Calico Gown
4. What Am I Here For?
5. Cotton Tail

EllaDuke2


21. Francis A. & Edward K.

FASEKE1Record: Francis A. & Edward K.
Artist: Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington
Released: Reprise Records, 1968

The first thing I noticed about this record when I pulled it out is that it's almost pristine. It was released in 1968, so it's likely one of the last records my father ever bought and was maybe played only a handful of times. The corners of the album jacket are crisp, the vinyl hasn't a single scratch. [Editor's note: I just found on the last track of Side 2.]

Before I even set the record on the turntable, I checked out the liner notes on the back of the jacket. I've written about this before, but it bears repeating. Writing about records is a genre in and of itself, and if there were an anthology of these thousand-word essays bound in book form, it would be in my Amazon shopping cart right now. 

What exactly are we doing when we write about music? How do we describe a soaring a trumpet solo or the power of a bass line? Can words do justice to the genius of John Coltrane or Miles Davis or Billie Holiday? Sometimes the authors will try, filling the jacket cover with detailed descriptions of the music inside, writing with technical precision that matches the musicians' skills. They understand that their readers are not casual fans, so they write to that level. In reading notes like these I've learned about how albums have been recorded and how bands have gotten together, but more importantly I've learned the language of music. 

The notes that I prefer, however, are ones like Stan Cornyn wrote for this record. Rather than digging into the music, he focuses instead of the musicians, two legends in their own time, Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington. With a style that could've been borrowed from Mickey Spillane, Cornyn describes the recording studio in intimate detail as his two main characters enter and prepare to record.

"For the next five minutes, with the thoughtful ceremony of a Sumo wrestler, Ellington arranges his cafeteria of sine qua non's. Across the music stand of his Steinway he lays out his cafeteria: One six pack of Cokes. One pkg. Pall Malls. A Kleenex box. A cafeteria spoon. A one lb. box of C&H cube sugar. One Hilton Hotel's bottle opener (no church key at such a session). Six inches from the left piano leg, a plaid two-gallon ice cooler. Ash tray, aluminum. Quantas Airlines flight bag, towel in. Now he is ready."

It could be the opening paragraph of a mystery novel, but with two suspects like Ellington and Sinatra, the case solves itself. There is no mystery. Ellington settles in at his piano as he leads his usual band, but they generally take a back seat to Sinatra, who does what Sinatra does.

Cornyn catches the moment at the end of the recording session when the two of them reflect on their work. "Elegant record, Francis," says Duke. "Always glad to hear about that kind of carrying on," replies Frank.

Always glad.

FASEKE2

Side 1
Follow Me
Sunny
All I Need Is the Girl
Indian Summer

Side 2
I Like the Sunrise
Yellow Days
Poor Butterfly
Come Back to Me

 


12. Nice 'n' Easy

Sinatra1Record: Nice 'n' Easy
Artist: Frank Sinatra
Released: Capitol Records, 1960

I was only a few weeks into this project when I began thinking about upgrading to a new turntable. The record player I've been using only occasionally for the past fifteen years is one of the nostalgia driven models you typically see in your local big box retailer. It looks like a small suitcase, complete with a suitcase handle so you can carry it from room to room. It's fine for spinning a record a few times a year, but as I've begun to listen more regularly, I've realized the limitations, specifically of the built-in speakers.

And so I've been researching for the past month or so, trying to find a turntable that would fit my needs. First and foremost, since I don't have a full stereo system anymore, I needed a turntable with Bluetooth capabilities so that I could listen with either my wireless speakers or my headphones, but I didn't want it to be ridiculously expensive. (As you can imagine, you can spend whatever you want to spend, well into the thousands of dollars.)

After reading a dozen or so "best Bluetooth turntable" articles and several detailed reviews of a few different models, I settled on one from Audio-Technica, then spent another couple weeks wondering about it. Did I really need it? Would I really notice a difference? And then last week we were out shopping in Santa Monica, and we wandered into Urban Outfitters, a store that caters to fashion-conscious hipsters.

When we walked out and headed to dinner, I casually mentioned to my daughter that Urban Outfitters had had the turntable I was thinking about buying.

"Is it the Audio-Technica?"

As she explained, all the cool kids (TikTokkers) were buying Audio-Technica turntables. When vintage vinyl started becoming popular again, mainstream artists -- Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, and all the rest -- began releasing new albums (and their back catalog) on vinyl. In 2021 there were actually more records sold in the United States than CDs, the first time in thirty years that vinyl outsold plastic, and it was a trend driven not by nostalgic baby boomers but by precocious kids who wanted to be able to hold their music.

"I just think it's cool that music can be permanent, that it can be yours," said my daughter. As someone once said -- on vinyl -- the kids are alright. And so when those social media influencers outgrew their entry level record players, they turned to Audio-Technica, just like I did. I'm not sure how I feel about that, but there it is.

My new turntable arrived this week, which meant that I had a serious decision to make. I still remember the first disc I played in my car stereo, a Sony pullout that I absolutely adored. It wasn't accidental. I chose Ghost in the Machine by the Police because it was the first CD I had ever bought and they were one of my favorite bands. It felt right.

So the first spin here had to have some significance. I thought about thumbing through the entire collection and finding a record that felt significant, something that would match the significance of the occasion, but since the order of the journey thus far has been left to chance, I decided to see which record was on deck -- and it was the right choice.

I think there are at least twenty Frank Sinatra records in my father's collection, and I've always known that he held Sinatra in the highest regard, filing him in the classical section as an indication of the timeless nature of his vocal talent. Sinatra is also my mother's favorite, so it all made perfect sense.

If I'm being honest, I have to say that this particular record isn't my favorite of his. As the title suggests, it feels like soothing background music. There's nothing dynamic here unless you count Sinatra's legendary voice. He's backed by an orchestra, not a big band, and both Sinatra and conductor Nelson Riddle are comfortable with the situation. Neither pushes the other, and maybe that's okay.

It's obvious, however, that my father did love this album. The slip case is worn, and masking tape holds it together on the top and the bottom, making it clear that the record was in heavy rotation. Even better than that, the record is worn. The hissing, popping, and crackling that people get so romantic about when remembering the favorite records of their youth? It's all here. The first sixty seconds of the opening track are slightly obscured by static so strong that Sinatra's voice fades in and out a bit. And for the first time, an actual skip! I called my daughter into the room to listen as the closing verse of "Dream" repeated itself over and over. "When the day is through... is through... is through..." When I told her that it would keep going like this forever if I didn't lift the needle over the skip, she looked at me blankly as if I were speaking a foreign language. In a way, I was. An archaic language from the distant past.

But she was right when she talked earlier about the lure of physical music. There's a note from Capitol Records on the back of the album cover: "This monophonic microgroove recording is playable on monophonic and stereo phonographs. It cannot become obsolete. It will continue to be a source of outstanding sound reproduction, providing the finest monophonic performance from any phonograph."

It really is quite amazing. I'm sure all of that seemed true back in 1960 when my father bought this record, but who would have believed it in the 1970s when 8-track tapes burst on the scene? What about when cassette tapes dominated the '80s? When I complained to an employee at Wherehouse Records in 1986 or '87 that the CD section was getting bigger as the LP section was shrinking, he told me that soon the records would be gone.

"But what if I don't even have a CD player?" I asked.

"Well, you better get one."

They told us that CDs would be forever. They were the perfect format for storing music because they would never degrade, but they only seemed perfect because none of us could imagine a time when every song ever recorded could be ours in an instant, just with the tap of a button on phones we'd carry in our pockets.

But the folks at Capitol Records were right about this record after all. "It cannot become obsolete." Even though records disappeared and became hopelessly archaic decades ago, they've survived, and they still sound beautiful.

Sinatra2

Side 1
Nice 'n' Easy
That Old Feeling
How Deep Is the Ocean
I've Got a Crush on You
You Go to My Head
Fools Rush In

Side 2
Nevertheless
She's Funny That Way
Try a Little Tenderness
Embraceable You
Mam'selle
Dream


6. Just One of Those Things

ColeRecord: Just One of Those Things
Artist: Nat "King" Cole
Released: Capitol Records, 1957

Once upon a time there was no more common rite of passage for a teenager than the creation of a mixtape. You'd fill a sixty- or ninety-minute cassette with favorite songs from your collection, maybe from your friend's, and you had a soundtrack for your summer. It was usually just a collection of the best songs from your favorite bands, but sometimes there was a theme of some sort -- British new wave, bands with female leads, classic rock guitar legends. (Rob Sheffield wrote a great book about this that I highly recommend, Love Is a Mixtape.)

Which brings us to the pinnacle of the art form, the romantic mixtape. Never did we spend so much time finding just the right songs with just the right lyrics and putting them in just the right order as when we were crafting a collection of songs to present to someone we loved and hoped would love us back. I still have the mixtape my wife made for me when we first started dating almost a quarter century ago, and even though I no longer have a cassette player and don't even know where I'd get one, I'll keep that tape forever.

None of that was possible for young lovers sixty years ago, so the music industry obliged. There were any number of options for those looking to set a romantic mood, and all the crooners of the day -- Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Tony Bennett -- regularly released collections of love songs that were no doubt played over candlelight dinners everywhere.

Nat "King" Cole was one of the legendary singers of that or any era, and here he presents a collection of ballads lamenting lost love. In "A Cottage for Sale," a man comes across a home where he once lived with his true love and discovers that though it looks the same, everything is different.

From every single window, I see your face
But when I reach a window, there's an empty space.
The key's in the mailbox, the same as before,
But no one is waiting for me anymore.

The lyrics are from Larry Conley, and the song has been recorded dozens of times by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Judy Garland to Willie Nelson, but Cole's phrasing here is perfect as he expresses a longing for something he can no longer reach.

Continuing with the theme of heartbreak, Cole tackles another standard, "These Foolish Things." Of all the tracks on the record, none has been recorded by as many different legends. There are versions from the people you'd expect -- Sinatra, Holiday, Fitzgerald -- but it's also appealed to modern singers from different genres, like Aaron Neville, Rod Stewart, and Bob Dylan. The first time I came across the song it was the Bryan Ferry version, which isn't surprising because I'm sure Ferry would've been right at home singing standards back in the 1950s.

The lyrics are simple but poignant.

A cigarette that bears a lipstick's traces,An airline ticket to romantic places,A fairgrounds painted swings,These foolish things remind me of you.
 
A tinkling piano in the next apartment,Those stumbling words that told you what my heart meant,And still my heart has wings.These foolish things remind me of you.
 
You came, you saw, you conquered me.When you did that to me, I knew somehowIt had to be.
 
The winds of March that make my heart a dancer,A telephone that rings but who's to answer?Oh, how the thought of you clings.These foolish things remind me of you.
Who among us hasn't experienced something like this? The surprise that comes when a common object triggers a flood of memories. A pack of gum might remind you of your high school boyfriend, a child's hairbrush can bring your newborn baby back into your arms. Or the feel of an old cassette tape can remind you of what it was like to fall in love.
 
If my father were sitting with me this morning, listening to this record, I wonder what foolish things the music might bring to his mind. Maybe they wouldn't be foolish at all.

Cole2

Side 1
When Your Lover Has Gone
A Cottage for Sale
Who's Sorry Now?
Once in a While
These Foolish Things Remind Me of You
Just for the Fun of It

Side 2
Don't Get Around Much Anymore
I Understand
Just One of Those Things
The Song Is Ended
I Should Care
The Party's Over


4. Sinatra-Basie

SinatraBasieRecord: Sinatra-Basie
Artist: Frank Sinatra and Count Basie
Released: Reprise Records, 1962

I bought my first true stereo in the summer of 1990, and few purchases before or since have given me as much pleasure. Until then my music had come from single-speaker clock radios, cassette tapes played through a boom box, or the CD players of college roommates. 

But when I gladly parted with six hundred dollars of my summer earnings and came home from Rogers Sound Labs with a receiver, a five-disc CD changer, and a set of speakers, everything changed. Suddenly I needed to have every song I'd ever loved in my CD collection, and even some that I didn't love just because someone else might want to hear it.

If only my twenty-year-old self had known about the world of streaming that was just a few decades away. Today I can stand in my kitchen and ask Alexa to play any song ever recorded, and within seconds I can be singing along while dicing an onion. It's a brave new wonderful world, but one thing we've lost is the joy of the search and the thrill of discovery.

During that first summer I had a detailed list of CDs that I wanted (needed) to add to my collection. Most weekends I'd spend a few hours with a likeminded friend scouring the racks at a used record store, searching for nuggets hidden in the stacks. The CDs were organized alphabetically, but only loosely, so the only method was to flip through -- flip through them all.

That rhythm of the cases clicking together as my index and middle fingers walked up the stack was hypnotic, and I don't have to look too deeply into my memories to hear the sound of the plastic click, click, click, clicking. And then you'd find one. Sometimes it was a CD you'd been searching for for weeks, but sometimes it was even better -- a CD you didn't even know existed. A bootleg recording of a live concert or the European edition of a CD you already owned. (You'd buy it anyway because it might have different artwork and an extra track.) I miss the search. I miss the discovery.

It wasn't immediately that I connected my love of music with my father's, nor my growing CD collection to his vinyl, but that would come. When I wanted to expand my jazz collection, I looked to my father for guidance and opened his record chests with intent. It was similar to my Saturday CD runs. Some of the names were familiar, but others were brand new. I flipped through the records, pulling one album out at a time, and I added titles to my list.

This record, Sinatra-Basie, was one of the first to show up in my collection, and it's still one of my favorites. I don't remember for sure, but I'm guessing I was drawn to it because of Frank Sinatra, who was one of my mother's favorites, probably her only favorite. 

My whole life was in front of me when I was in my early twenties and first listening to this record, and no track spoke to that like the fourth song on the first side.

"Lookin' at the world through rose-colored glasses
Everything is rosy now
Lookin' at the world and everything that passes
Seems a rosy hue somehow..."

If my life had been a movie, I imagined, this was the song playing in the opening credits. A few scenes later, when life took its first turn, there would be Sinatra again with a track from side two, "Learnin' the Blues," this time gently explaining the pain of lost love. He gently croons,

"When you're at home alone, the blues will taunt you constantly.
When you're out in a crowd, those blues will haunt your memory."

People often refer to one album or another as being the soundtrack of their lives, and I think that's telling. Music speaks to us, and great music speaks to all of us. What Sinatra and Basie have done here is combine Basie's orchestra with Sinatra's singing, and the result is a record the must've spoken to by father sixty years ago, certainly spoke to me thirty years ago, and still swings today. That's genius.

SinatraBasieVinyl


Side 1
Pennies from Heaven
Please Be Kind
(Love Is) The Tender Trap
Looking at the World thru Rose Colored Glasses
My Kind of Girl

Side 2
I Only Have Eyes for You
Nice Work If You Can Get It
Learnin' the Blues
I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter
I Won't Dance


3. Billie Holiday

LadyDayRecord: Billie Holiday
Artist: Billie Holiday (with Ray Ellis and His Orchestra)
Released: MGM Records, 1959

Quite simply, there's no one like Billie Holiday. This isn't her finest work, but it's important because it's her last work; she died four months after these songs were recorded. If you were to look for this album today, you'd find it as Last Recording, with that new title added to the album artwork, but the record I'm listening to this morning must be from the first print run. It's just Billie Holiday.

How to describe Lady Day? It's difficult to find a comparison to someone as legendary as Ms. Holiday, but I can say that Norah Jones reminds me of her, though Jones is a bit more sultry, and Madeleine Peyroux is another musical descendant, but there's something unique about Holiday. 

The artist does not need to be pained, but some of our greatest artists channel their pain into their work, either directly or indirectly. But when Holiday sings on this record, "I'll never smile again, until I smile at you. I'll never laugh again, what good would it do?" these aren't her lyrics but it is her pain, an apparent contradiction that highlights a key difference between how standards in the music industry have changed.

Artists today must write their own songs to be taken seriously, and some -- like Taylor Swift -- are criticized even if they collaborate with another songwriter. That was never the case before. The great singers from the last century -- Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Williams -- almost never wrote their own songs. They were performers, and that they were singing someone else's songs could never diminish their genius. There was only one Sinatra, after all. No one could duplicate Ella Fitzgerald.

And so what Holiday does with these songs is something no other artist could have done. In the liner notes for this album, Leonard Feather describes how different she was in 1959 as compared to her earlier years, but he doesn't go into specifics. The truth is that Holiday had spent her thirty-year career chasing away pain with alcohol and heroin, and so when we listen to these final recordings, we're listening to a voice that's been damaged and a soul that's been ravaged. And yet, it's all so beautiful.

This morning was the first time I've listened to this record, but I smiled to hear her renditions of two timeless classics, "All the Way" ("When somebody loves you, it's no good unless he loves you, all the way") and the Louie Armstrong standard "When It's Sleepy Time Down South." Both songs are someone else's, both songs are familiar, but Holiday makes them her own.

The best example of this is in one of the most important songs ever recorded, "Strange Fruit." I don't think my father had that in his collection, but we can't talk about Billie Holiday without discussing her haunting version of a song that helped plant the seeds for the Civil Rights movement by taking an unflinching look at the dark history of lynching in the American South. Consider the lyrics, then watch this video of Holiday performing the song in 1959.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit.
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
 
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth.
Scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
 
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
 
Again, these are not Holiday's words. The lyrics were adapted from a poem written by Abel Meeropol in response to an infamous photo of a double lynching in Marion, Indiana, in 1930. (You can read about that history here.) But just as she did throughout her career, Lady Day took those words and elevated them. That, I think, is what true genius is. The elevation of a truth that the rest of us already knew.
 

LadyDay2Side 1
All of You
Sometimes I'm Happy
You Took Advantage of Me
When It's Sleepy Time Down South
There'll Be Some Changes Made
'Deed I Do

Side 2
Don't Worry 'bout Me
All the Way
Just One More Chance
It's Not for Me to Say
I'll Never Smile Again
Baby Won't You Please Come Home