Jan 26, 2014

Billie Times Six, Songs By Sylvia, Plus A Jazzy 'Lady' And A Dreamy Girl Secret Song!

Is Billie photo-bombing that vase of flowers or is it the other way around? Regardless, it's one of the few color pictures of "Lady Day," as they called her, so I had to use it. Everybody loves Billie Holiday, and hopefully, we're now far enough away from her heyday to appreciate her genius anew.
I know what you're thinking - "But I've always appreciated her!" - and, yes, I know, but let's also assume that many of us, at one time or another, have failed to separate the talent from her supposedly "debilitating" addiction to heroin.

Yes, she was an addict (definitely), but the way she's been portrayed - as a near-prostrate junkie in several bios and movies (most notably this train wreck) - never quite matches up with the real life woman who carefully crafted and recorded twelve original LPs in just nine years, made over thirty-five television appearances (most of them live), and was almost constantly on tour throughout North America and Europe for most of her adult life.

What I'm trying to suggest is that drugs weren't the whole story with Holiday, not even half of it, yet it's the first thing a lot of people come up with when they mention her. Even when critics talk about her voice, they'll tell you that her "delicate" sound was the result of her drug taking, when clearly, she knew exactly what she wanted her voice to do, and how best to achieve it. So when you binge-listen to this newly restored 6-CD set of her Verve master tapes, put all that noise about her in the Dumpster where it belongs and just hear the voice. Her voice. There's still no one like her.

From Billie to Sylvia...because why not?

It's not such a stretch. In fact, considering they're both masters at interpreting a lyric, it's not really a stretch at all. "Songs By Sylvia Syms" - a Cheerful Exclusive! just for you - was recorded in 1955 at the beginning of Syms' career, just after she caught the attention and support of Frank Sinatra.

And did you know? A few years previous, when she first started singing at NYC jazz clubs, she befriended and received training from...you guessed it, Billie Holiday. So see? From Billie to Sylvia isn't even a slight stretch. Syms was also made of hearty stuff. She survived childhood polio, had a lung removed as an adult - and she still didn't slow down. At age 74, she died of a heart attack while performing on stage (because of course she did) at NYC's The Algonquin.

And now let's take a moment to appreciate Julie Andrews' sense of humor. In the 1960's, filmmaker Blake Edwards was asked why he thought Andrews - who was at the height of her goody-two-shoes rein with "Mary Poppins" and "The Sound Of Music" - was so phenomenally successful. "Oh, I'll tell you exactly why," Edwards quipped. "She has lilacs for pubic hair." Just a few days later, Andrews delivered an immense lilac bush to his home. Not too long after, they married - a marriage that lasted over forty years until he passed.

Andrews first hit it big in North America with "My Fair Lady" on Broadway (I know you knew that), and traveled with the show to London's West End. Interestingly, there were two original cast recordings made. For some reason, I've always preferred the London version, though the differences are minute (and don't get me started on that lumpy movie version) (or its soundtrack) (blech, I tell you, blech).

Like "Porgy and Bess," Lerner & Lowe's score for "My Fair Lady" proved to be catnip for jazz artists. Below, two of my swingin' favorites with legendary jazz drummer Shelly Manne and pianist Billy Taylor. They're musts, I promise.

Don't worry. The Secret Song File will not be sending you an immense lilac bush, but if pressed, a bottle of Chanel No. 5 (because hers really are that fragrant). I've no idea what kind of fragrance emanates from a certain formally-zaftig Broadway legend, but then it's been over two decades since she's released a new CD. She may have wailed "I'm not goin'!" but truth is, it's been a while.

I wasn't crazy about this CD at first, and while some of it's starting to grow on me, I'm still on the fence, but my Cuban Luvuh is a believer. Without doubt, her voice is as powerful as ever, so if you were thinking she might have lost something along the way, don't worry. That part of her really isn't goin' anywhere. Thank goodness.

If Julie's is a lilac bush, what was Blake's? 

Leave a comment, if you like!


Anonymous said...

Contraire! "My Fair Lady" originated in the U.S. before opening in London two years later.

The Cheerful Earfull! said...

Sacre bleu! You're correct! I'll change this tout suite!

Anonymous said...

"Lady Sings The Blues" was hardly a train wreck. Sure, Ross didn't sound like Holiday but nailed her phrasing. The film was a box office hit and was also nominated for 5 Academy Awards including Best Actress and introduced a whole generation to Billie's music...myself included.

The Cheerful Earfull! said...

We'll have to agree to disagree. I'm glad it introduced you to her music, but its portrayal of her is almost entirely fictional.

As for Ross' singing, I think Pauline Kael expresses best how I feel: "Ross gives you the phrasing without the intensity that makes it dramatic and memorable. They're pop versions of Holiday's numbers." and adds, "Pop music provides immediate emotional gratification that the subtler and deeper and more lasting pleasures of jazz can't prevail against. The chemistry of pop vulgarization is allpowerful. It's shocking to see a great black artist’s experience poured into the same Hollywood mold."

David Federman said...

Connecting the dots between Billie and Sylvia performs a supremely important service. I have grown to expect such superb insight from you. You need to be reminded of and thanked for--far more often, i fear, than is the case--your wonderful blog.

And I agree, Billie didn't need the movie they made. She deserved the kind of movie that the great jazz expatriates got in "Round Midnight" or Tina Turner got in "Love Is Not Enough." Dumbing down and debasing in the name of accessibility or making relevant for another generation never does anyone or anything any good--or justice. That's why musicals about Motown like "Dream Girls" are so bad. There is no substitute for the original--even when the originals are involved. Just think of joke bio-flicks like "The Benny Goodman Story."

Keep up the good work. I love my daily visits here.

David Federman said...

Actually, the name of the Tina Turner clic was "What's Love Got to Do with It." Did my memory fail me? Or did the memory of Thomas Wolfe get in the way? If so, I am proud of my mistake. If not, I apologize.

The Cheerful Earfull! said...

Thank you, David. I loved "'Round Midnight," too. And I like your choices for ridiculous bio-pics. I'd add "Night and Day," and not just because Cary Grant is playing a straight (!) Cole Porter, but for the scene when he comes up with the title song. You guessed it; the lights go on, then off - instant inspiration! I crack up every time I see it on TCM.

Luigi's 50's & 60's V Corner said...

Hi There!...I wonder if you realize that the picture you have of "Sylvia Syms" is not her...It is in fact a picture of "Sylvia Syms" (Sims) who in fact is a British actress and an OBE...Unless my eyes are gone wonky !!...thanks for all the great music you have and hope your site like mine lasts a long time..cheers Luigi !!

The Cheerful Earfull! said...

D'oh! And here I thought I was being careful not to make that mistake. Your eyes aren't wonky...mine are. Thanks for pointing that out.

Anonymous said...

I should have been clearer in my post. I was not praising the film as factually accurate or biographically correct. In fact, the book on which it was based is highly fictitious (here's a good writeup on that:


The film is indeed more of a soap opera and woman's picture but it did break some ground for a black film, especially in 1972 and Cicely Tyson ("Sounder") and Miss Ross were the first black actresses to be nominated for Best Actress since Dorothy Dandridge in 1954.

The Cheerful Earfull! said...

You're right. And I should have been clearer in terms of why I found fault with it. I actually like Ross as an actress and was disappointed that she didn't go on to do more besides "Mahogany" and "The Wiz," the latter which wasn't her fault, though I think it killed her film career. But she's no fool. I'm waiting for her dramatic film comeback. She'll kill.

E Craig said...

Thank you so much for the great music. If you get the chance check out Billie Holiday - the Complete Decca Recordings 1944 - 1950.

The Cheerful Earfull! said...

Thanks, E Craig. I was lucky enough to get that box set years ago for Christmas. It's fantastic!

Larry said...

Shelly Manne's trio album of tunes from "My Fair Lady" is rightfully famous. But even better is his second time at bat. With a larger group plus Irene Kral and Jack Sheldon handling the vocal duties. And arrangements by jazzbo Johnny Williams (before the "Star Wars" score helped turn him into Boston Pops leader John Williams). A wonderful sounding Capitol LP, it never made the CD market in the US. Highly recommended.

The Cheerful Earfull! said...

Ooo, sounds good. I must try and scare it up from somewhere!