Friday, February 27, 2009
I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues
Billie's version * of I Gotta Right To Sing the Blues was waxed on April 20,1939 for Commodore Records.
Billie's singing here typifies all that I love about the early years of her recording career; when speaking of her voice/tone as a trumpet this is not to take away from her humanity - she conveys the lyric sentiment perfectly but she brings to it the beauty of something purely musical. You can feel the blues for her but you can enjoy the ride as you accept that certain things in life are a given.
Where most singers would have "torched it up" with Billie you've got a subtler resignation that doesn't deny the pain - as if to say, "Life is a bitch - so, what else is new? I gotta find a way to live with it."
While the rhythm section lays down the beat in Basie style, heart-beat SOLID (one can imagine the strums of guitarist Jimmy McLin springing OFF the beat, buoyant, like Freddie Greene) Billie floats over it all like a golden cloud.
To quote drummer Specs Powell;
"She was one of the first singers that did not emote, no bouncing around, sang very quietly, snapped right hand, holding it close to her side. Snapped her fingers and tapped her feet very quietly, head tilted slightly to one side. The opposite to most jazz singers [of that time], who seemed to be choreographed. Her whole attitude was very cool."
The song has a wonderful stoptime bit at the end of a verse; she sings on beats 1 and three with band answering on 2 and 4 "All I SEE...FOR...ME...IS...MIS...ER...Ree-EEE!" and when they all lock back in to the solid time it's total swinging joy.
Frankie Newton with Billie at the session
A fine addition the record is Tab Smith's wail of a solo on alto sax; I would have personally preferred someone like Lester Young or even Kermit Scott on tenor or Irving Fazola on clarinet, but I must admit that Smith's rather ornate 20's style glide upward gives a nice contrast to Billie's even swing.
To my ears, the high point of the record is Frankie Newton's muted trumpet obbligato
entwining Billies vocal. The more I hear it the more I'm amazed at the choice of notes that seemed to push Billie's phrases to the fore rather than merely ornament.
Newton was an anomaly, more of a Miles Davis for the swing era, with minimal lyric solos.
"Frank" as he preferred to be called, made an auspicious debut with Bessie Smith in the early 30's but virtually dropped out of the recording scene by the mid 40's; apparently his independent spirit was at odds with the music business. An avid reader, and painter who loved to play tennis he nevertheless continued to play the odd gig in Boston and remained a legend to those who recalled him. Jazz writer Nat Hentoff befriended Newton in his youth and relates how the older, athletic, father-figure walked protectively behind him and his girfriend through a dicey neighborhood to make sure he wasn't "jumped".
Frankie Newton with Sidney Bechet
The band for the session was the house band for the newly opened Cafe Society Uptown club on 58th Street between Park and Lexington in Manhattan. Barney Josephson, a jazz lover, was the son of Latvian immigrants, and had witnessed better treatment of black performers in Europe. He opened the club, partly to provide an integrated environment and also to showcase black performers as well as cabaret and comedy. It was Josephson who introduced Billie to her most famous song "Strange Fruit" - the thinly veiled portrayal of racist lynching in the south. The irony is that it was recorded at the very-same session as "I Gotta Right..." and would lead Billie down a very different road.
I would agree she became typecast in the following years as a "hard-luck" tragic chanteuse as much for this song as for the sordid details of her growing addiction to heroin and abusive men. Ironically (a situation much like Lester Young's), as her voice deteriorated, she was able to make more records under her own name - it always saddens me that so many listeners are ONLY familiar with the latter-day (of the 50's and late 40's) recordings and have no inkling of the golden-toned Billie.
Finally a word of praise should go out to the composer/melodist Harold Arlen and lyricist Ted Koehler who wrote "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues". The stunning array of melodies written by Arlen include Over the Rainbow, Let's Fall In Love, Stormy Weather, Get Happy, I've Got the World On a String, One For My Baby, Come Rain or Come Shine among others!
No accident that Arlen was the son of a Jewish cantor who also loved secular music; especially operatic singers like Enrico Caruso and John McCormack. Harold Arlen stepped beyond his family phonograph and enveloped himself in the sounds of ragtime, jazz and the powerful blues of Bessie Smith - Billie Holiday's prime influence along with Louis Armstrong.
Harold Arlen >
For a fascinating in-depth comparison of Billie's "I Gotta Right..." with Louis Armstrong's equally wonderful take from 1934, see Lori Burns' Feeling the Style: Vocal Gesture and Musical Expression in Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, and Louis Armstrong.
* Billies "I Gotta Right .." can be found by scrolling down to the bottom of the link page - next to The Complete Commodore recordings.