Monday, July 20, 2009

Long Live Lady Day

The incomparable Mark Steyn writes about the more so incomparable Billie Holiday and her collaboration with songster Arthur Herzog Jr. on the song, "Don't Explain."

In 1941, she [Billie Holiday] married Jimmy Monroe, the brother of an old employer of hers, and they settled down, if you can call it that, in Los Angeles. One night, he came home, and she noticed he had lipstick on his collar.

"I saw the lipstick," she said. "He saw I saw it and he started explaining and explaining. I could stand anything but that. Lying to me was worse than anything he could have done with any bitch."

She cut him off in mid-flow. "Take a bath, man," she told him. "Don't explain." So Jimmy took her advice. But the words "Don't explain" somehow lodged in her head and declined to leave. "I had to get it out of my system some way," she recalled later. "The more I thought about it, it changed from an ugly scene to a sad song. Soon I was singing phrases to myself":

Hush now, Don't Explain
Just say you'll remain
I'm glad you're bad
Don't Explain...

A couple of days later, she hooked up with Arthur Herzog Jr round a piano and sang what she had. He played back the tune, made a few changes here and there, "softening it up just a little", as Holiday saw it. But not that much:

My love, Don't Explain
What is there to gain?
Skip that lipstick
Don't Explain...

I just finished Julia Blackburn's book, "With Billie: A New Look at the Unforgettable Lady Day." It is a compilation of interviews with Holiday's contemporaries; not a book to read if you're not familiar with Lady Day, but definitely one to pick up along the way.

Billie's Verve years have always been my favorite. Her voice is a bit stressed and cracks in some areas, but her phrasing and brutal emotion remains.

As Steyn writes:

Sometimes the voice is shot and the tone's unpleasant and the rasp is out of control, but I've never heard a Billie Holiday record where I disagreed with her phrasing. Even when everything else slides, her sense of where to breathe, what to inflect, how to tell the story, is absolutely superb.

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