Lady in Satin | Billie Holiday (June 1958)
Vocal Jazz 44:36
“Life is pain, Princess; anyone who tells you differently is selling something.”
So believes The Dread Pirate Roberts (Cary Elwes) in the wonderful movie The Princess Bride. He’s only half-right. In reality, there are plenty of times when pain has been exactly what we’ve been sold. We have a fascination in the West, on occasion, to happily watch as someone destroys their life; at times, it almost becomes an obsession. I don’t mean knocking down somebody when they are on a high – a peculiarly British idea that, if you’ve found success, then you shouldn’t be allowed to hold on to it. This isn’t about stopping a celebrity getting too big for their boots. This is about a person who seems intent on ripping their own life apart.
Whether it is the alcoholism that slowly destroyed the talents of Richard Burton or Peter O’Toole, the pill-popping of Judy Garland or Marilyn Monroe, or the drug abuse that took its toll on Janis Joplin or Phillip Seymour Hoffman, we love a tale of tragedy. From the time when mass entertainment began, some of our biggest celebrities have struggled with addictions and mental illness, having lived through abuse and poverty. Not every story is the same – sometimes it is a struggle with fame which has led to the downwards spiral. Other times, the personalities of these people have resulted in their self-destructive path. And, at times, it seems that genius and talent simply go hand-in-hand with this negative lifestyle. Such was the case with the gifted singer Billie Holiday.
Billie Holiday was given a rough deal in the four short decades she was alive. To say she had a rough childhood is an understatement. Her teenage mother, Sarah Fagan, was thrown out of the home of Sarah’s parents’ home for becoming pregnant and her musician father, Clarence Holiday, left shortly after she was born. She was left with distant family members during her upbringing while her mother worked on the passenger railroads; she was soon skipping school and, by the age of 11, she had dropped out completely. Following an attempted rape by a neighbour, she moved to join her mother in Harlem where their landlady ran a brothel. Within days of arriving, Holiday had become a prostitute like her mother; a few months later, the brothel was raided and she was sent to prison. She was just 14.
It seemed that music could have been her lifesaver; playing the clubs in Harlem as a singer, she was soon on her way to success. But with it came alcohol, drugs and a series of abusive lovers. As if that wasn’t enough, she faced both legal battles and, more problematically, a battle to be taken legitimately as a singer. By the time she died in 1959 – less than two years after the release of Lady in Satin and aged just 44 – she was virtually penniless. As she lay dying in her hospital bed, police officers swooped to arrest her.
But it is her music that she is most remembered for, with Lady in Satin regarded as one of the greats. As the record begins, and the music soars, I found myself braced for something special. I’ve never heard Holiday before (at least to my knowledge) but had read how her singing had set the trend for a new way of manipulating the voice. What I got was far from it – initially it was more like the croaks of a dying frog. After years of abuse, here was a woman whose pain had wracked her voice, tearing it apart. The smoky voice seemed to grate against the gentle swirls of the music behind it.
But then something happened. As opening number I’m a Fool to Want You ended and For Heaven’s Sake began, my ears began to grow accustomed to her tones. It began to grow on me and I was suddenly transported to a different world. Here was another darkened bar, not dissimilar to the one which Sinatra brought us to with the very first album on this list, In The Wee Small Hours. But while Frank’s songs were of a man who knew he had thrown love away, Billie’s reveal a desire for something more. And it somehow makes it all the more tragic; a woman who wants to match the music and sing of optimism but who you can hear will never achieve those dreams. It is the broken dream of someone beyond hope but who is completely unaware of the despair they live in.
To be honest, I’m not the first person to fail to get the songs straight away. The album’s bandleader Ray Ellis admitted he wasn’t initially impressed with Holiday’s work on the album, saying later: “After we finished the album I went into the control room and listened to all the takes. I must admit I was unhappy with her performance, but I was just listening musically instead of emotionally. It wasn’t until I heard the final mix a few weeks later that I realized how great her performance really was.” And it is certainly an album that grows on you.
The mood of a woman emotionally fooling herself continues with You Don’t Know What Love Is. There is a bitterness underlying some of the words; as Holiday’s voice slightly breaks and struggles to reach one of the higher notes, you know that she is about to crack. It is an emotional car crash. Like so many other lost talents, your heart breaks as you hear her heart wrung wrought. I Get Along Without You Very Well sounds like somebody on the verge of collapse, convincing herself that she is far better than reality is proving.
This is one of the most painful albums to listen to; like Johnny Cash’s version of Trent Raznor’s Hurt 50 years later, this is the sound of a person with just months left to live, looking back on a life filled with lost moments. But, as much as you want to turn away from the suffering, you can’t help but listen. Life is pain – and beautiful music is made from it. If nothing else good came from her life, Billie Holiday produced one of the most incredible dissections of despair ever put to record. If only she hadn’t needed to suffer so much to do it.
If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Lady in Satin here:
Next time: Jack Takes the Floor by Ramblin’ Jack Elliot