Dubbed "Lady Day" by jazz saxophonist, Lester Young, Billie Holiday (1915-1959) is one of the most influential and iconic jazz vocalists of all time. Her uniquely expressive voice, with its unmistakable tone, timbre, and horn-like phrasing, had an emotional sincerity that made everything she sang seem an honest reflection of her own personal struggles in life. Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia and after experiencing a difficult childhood, found an escape through music. She began singing professionally as a teenager in the late 1920s and signed her first recording contract in 1935, before going on to work with the swing-era big bands of Count Basie and Artie Shaw. By the 1940s, she was a big solo star but behind the showbiz glamour there was a dark underside of drug and alcohol dependency, which eventually hastened her tragic demise (she died in 1959 aged 44).
Classic Lady Day catches up with Holiday at the dawn of the LP age in the 1950s when she recorded for the Clef and Verve labels founded by jazz impresario and producer, Norman Granz. The opening album in the set is 1957's Solitude: Songs By Billie Holiday, which was first issued in 1952 as a 10-inch LP called Billie Holiday Sings for Granz's Clef imprint. It's a delightful small group session where Holiday's beguiling voice is framed by sympathetic and lightly-swinging arrangements played by sidemen that include pianist Oscar Peterson and guitarist Barney Kessell. Holiday's mournful version of Duke Ellington's immortal "Solitude," with Charlie Shavers on trumpet, is particularly arresting. Holiday also puts her own inimitable stamp on the standards "You Go To My Head" and "These Foolish Things."
A Recital By Billie Holiday is a 1956 compilation that includes fine readings of "What A Little Moonlight Can Do" and "Stormy Weather," while Velvet Moods - Songs By Billie Holiday issued the same year on Clef contains "Nice Work If You Can Get It" and "I've Got A Right To Sing The Blues." Also issued in 1956 was Holiday's most famous album, Lady Sings The Blues, which she released to coincide with the publication of her same-titled autobiography. It contains the classic title song - co-written by the singer - and another original iconic tune, "God Bless The Child." Another highlight is her haunting version of American writer Lewis Allan's provocative but poignant anti-lynching poem set to music, "Strange Fruit." Classic Lady Day concludes with the 1958 Verve LP, All Or Nothing At All, released a year before the singer's death. It contains memorable performances of "April In Paris," "Sophisticated Lady," and "Love Is Here To Stay."