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I was struck by Sinatra's reference in 1939 to Billie's "soft beauty," such a contrast to the skin and bones (which that satin dress accentuated rather than concealed) of the late Holiday. It's easy to forget that before the mid-1940s, Billie has even a bit of "pleasing plumpness" showing through many of the early photos.
Sadly, many people know only the later Holiday, when there was undeniably a bit of "extra-musical" spectacle surrounding all of her public performances, 1949-1959. Of course, there was focus on the expressiveness of the voice--an always transparent window into the soul of the woman--but the interest was not unmixed with some ghoulish, quasi-masochistic fascination with a specimen self-destructing before our very eyes.
There's much of unquestionable value on her work for Norman Granz (the '50s Verve recordings) and even the "Lady in Satin" Columbia album (admittedly, hard to take on anything close to a regular diet). But you can't get to the essence of the total artist without being able to see what John Hammond, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and Artie Shaw (along with Sinatra) saw in this extraordinary artist beginning in 1934 (her singing in the '30s and early '40s is as much about sunshine as rain).
Her thin sound and narrow vocal range (but don't kid yourself: she could always "project") may have ultimately been to her advantage, assuring that she would ultimately rise above even Ella and Sarah not to mention all of the gifted, pyrotechnical, coloratura pretenders to follow.
The extra-musical spectacle during her lifetime is nothing more than that. The genereal public was not familiar with Holiday's importance as an artist. They barely knew who she was if it weren't for the publicity. I find very little that you would describe as questionable value even in her worst recordings. She clearly demonstrated that her artistry improved right up until the end. There are many examples of her being in glorious voice in 1958. It is simpply unfortunate that she was going through a rough, personal time and that her voice was not in peak form when she recorded Lady in Satin, as it was in September of the same year when she sang at the Plaza, or at the Jazz Festival in Conneticut in September. In spite of that, Lady In Satin is one of the great vocal masterpieces of all time.
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