Thirty-Three Times A Lady: Lady In Satin + The United States vs. Billie Holiday

Welcome to a new feature, Thirty-Three Times A Lady. It’s an opportunity to focus on classic albums by female singers, in this case Lady In Satin by Billie Holiday. A pretty pertinent if divisive choice for Women’s History Month then. 

Thanks to a gripping new film, The United States Vs. Billie Holiday, the woman they christened Lady Day seems to be having something of a welcome resurgence over sixty years after her death. Born in Philadelphia in April 1915, this affectionate portrait sheds new light on the legendary star’s dramatic decline and all from grace.

It’s easy to see why a writer should be attracted to Holiday’s life: booze, busts and bisexuality. Or if I can get a little Paninari for a second, Passion, drugs, sex, money, violence, prostitution, injustice and death — they are all there. And of course the sterling soundtrack speaks for itself. As was the case with the recent Judy movie about Garland’s last days in London, the Billie biopic can be tough, harrowing but intensely involving to watch as it details the FBI’s relentless pursuit of the increasingly harried and heroin-addled jazz singer. 

Adapted from a sliver of Johann Hari’s book about drug criminalisation (Chasing The Scream: The First And Last Days Of The War On Drugs), the film’s Oscar-nominated director, Lee Daniels has focused specifically on the relationship between an increasingly harried and heroin-addled Holiday and Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), the black federal agent sent out by anti-drugs crusader Harry J Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund, swoon) to snag her. Never has that Motown-lifting line from Warpaint’s song seemed more appropriate

“No muscle-bound man can tear me away from my guy.”

The screenplay also posits a nagging suggestion that Holiday’s hard-knock life — her battles with racism and her voracious and self-destructive appetites— spilt over into the world of the biographer and sealed her fate. It’s a richly rewarding film at any rate. The performance of novice actress Andra Day in the title role is a revelation and one that more than lives up to historical precedent. Her rendition of several Holiday standards, including the anti-lynching protest song Strange Fruit (delivered in its entirety, after gruelling flashback), is eerily authentic and rasp-perfect. While her dramatic performance is also bold, exposed and, yes, note-perfect. To put that into context, though I think she performed adequately, not everyone had time for Diana Ross’s less than supreme impersonation in the film Lady Sings The Blues, whilst the most notable thing about Eartha Kitt’s stage rendition in Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar And Grill was that she was in her sixties at the time, an age sadly denied to its subject. 

The records Billie made towards the end of her life sometimes make very uneasy listening. You can hear the shadows closing in. The voice is painfully cracked and weary; at times you wonder if she will even make it to the end of a phrase. Which is, for certain people at least, part of the appeal. Nothing better illustrates the dichotomy better than Lady In Satin. Largely panned on its initial release, it would turn out to be Billie Holiday’s penultimate studio album, which perhaps accounts for some measure of its “classic” status today. The set is a collaboration between Holiday and the Ray Ellis Orchestra, and thus is entirely made up of string-laden ballads, with little in the way of swing. It’s a rather laboured, somnolent affair, and it’s somewhat understandable that it was blasted as “insipid” and a “disaster” by critic Glenn Coulter at the time of its release in 1958, just a year before Billie’s untimely death. The Penguin Guide to Jazz also expressed serious reservations in their retrospective review, calling the album a “voyeuristic look at a beaten woman.”

The truth is that Lady in Satin is one of the most raw, heartbreaking and genuine albums ever released, era notwithstanding. It’s beautiful. It’s tragic. It’s restrained. It’s no-holds-barred. On her final masterpiece, Billie Holiday plumbs the depths of human emotion to reveal an honest-to-God depiction of female struggle. A deeply personal affair then but I concede still one of the most divisive; a giant dollop of musical marmite that still manages to leave listeners speechless over a half-century later, and not always for the right reasons. If some find it too painful to sit through, other listeners regard it as a heart-on-sleeve classic. Which begs the question, are they admiring her artistry, or merely wallowing in her vulnerability? The image of the singer as a doomed, self-destructive talent, living on heroin and booze, often seems in danger of eclipsing the music itself. 

Lady In Satin is kind of the audio equivalent of the movie: it’s a haunting and uncomfortable ride but against unbelievable odds, the music triumphs above the singer’s fragile state and makes it all worth it. The album would also become the final record Billie Holiday would release during her lifetime, as she would die of liver cirrhosis brought on by the drugs and drink in July 1959, aged just 44 years and three months. 

Throughout the LP’s running time of 44 minutes and 30 seconds, the famous voice is irreparably damaged and weak, and while you would think that such a thing would detract from the music, in reality it’s the opposite. She gives one of the most profound and emotional vocal performances you’re ever likely to hear on record, singing every line with the entirety of her heart and soul. Holiday’s voice may have been past its best, but that doesn’t mean she’d lost an ounce of her emotional impact and range. Hear the bitter accusation in the opening lines of the ultra-downer You’ve Changed; the pained longing in I’m A Fool To Want You – her voice may be slightly cracked but it is nevertheless always rich and arresting, with every word assigned specific meaning. 

My personal favourite of the album’s eleven tracks is For Heaven’s Sake. It’s got the usual great vocal delivery, but there’s just so much nuance and subtlety in the instrumentation, such as the brilliantly understated piano in the opening. I almost can’t even put my finger on just what makes this track so good. The high-register choral voice that drifts in eerily from the background throughout the record (courtesy of Elise Bretton and Miriam Workman) has a very surreal quality — almost like a theremin singing a requiem. The effect grants each track an otherworldly, ethereal vibe that just seems to speak to me on a deep, indescribable level. 

As for the musical arrangements, Holiday’s vocals and Ellis’ orchestra work together absolutely flawlessly, and together they create a borderline perfect atmosphere of both gloom and hope. This is a theme carried throughout the album; almost every track deals in doomed love and broken relationships, ruminating on the nature of love in the face of uncertainty and opposition while Billie performs over the lushest arrangements of her entire career. In fact, it’s an uncharacteristic move. She was one of the rare vocalists of the era to truly emphasise the “jazz” in vocal jazz. Here, the 40-piece orchestra is delicate and graceful, not unlike In The Wee Small Hours by Frank Sinatra, himself hugely inspired by Lady Day’s repertoire, and paying this tribute:

“It is Billie Holiday, whom I first heard in 52nd Street clubs in the 1930s, who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence.”

Indeed, many comparisons have been made to Ol’ Blue Eyes’s Capitol classic from 1955. Hours and Satin are incredibly similar in instrumentation, mood and lyrical content, and while any sane soul would regard Sinatra’s set as an easier listen, Lady In Satin is still a contender in its own right. They even share three of the same standards, (namely, renditions of I Get Along Without You Very Well, Glad To Be Unhappy, and I’ll Be Around) but despite the many similarities, they remain wildly different albums. Sinatra’s voice is warm and flawless, and Holiday’s voice is tattered and tormented. Both singing styles compliment the music greatly, but in much different ways. Holiday’s delivery perhaps conveys a whole world of emotion that Sinatra’s only hints at. She’s seems more naturally inclined to handle the sorrowful lyricism of the material.

I don’t think I’ve never heard a voice that has so much vulnerability and resolve simultaneously, and every note is both painful and utterly utterly beautiful, juxtaposed with the most lush orchestration of the music. But let’s not beat around the bush, Lady In Satin is the sound of a woman dying. Sinatra would follow-up In The Wee Small Hours with the happy-go-lucky masterpiece, Songs For Swingin’ Lovers; 13 months after Lady In Satin, Holiday would be dead.

Ray Ellis, the mastermind behind the LP’s evocative instrumentation, was originally unhappy with Billie’s painfully cracked and weary vocals, but listening to the master tapes later in production, he heard it in a whole new light. He noted that her delivery and performance didn’t shine in opposition to her voice, but rather the two enhanced each other. There is much to be said for that; she really knew how to sing a lyric, and her decades of musical experience shined through and elevates this album from average to unforgettable. 

For the singer’s part, Holiday shined when she drew on her own struggles to give life meaning through her music. “The first thing that strikes a newcomer to jazz,” the writer and erstwhile trumpeter Colin Wilson once observed, “is that its mythology is so involved with self-destruction . . . The whole legend is bound up with early death, like the myth of romantic poetry.” Holiday is very much part of that tradition, one of the most famous casualties of the jazz life along with Charlie Parker and Bix Beiderbecke. Lady Day’s contemporary Ella Fitzgerald — a much sunnier talent — may have lived to a grand old age, but it is Holiday’s image that is found on posters in bedsits. And now on billboards and cinema lobbies too.

Steve Pafford

Sources: The Times, Jazz Journal, Colin’s Review, Tim Lee Songs, Dead Tree Hugger

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