This Chapter highlights some of the most important composers of Billie’s tunes. By going through the list below we can get a vivid musical portrait of her time and get the feeling of her taste in choosing memorable pieces of art.
Billie Holiday (1915-1959)
Many people don’t realize Billie was also a composer, or sometimes a lyricist with other composers as partners (their names in between brackets). These songs represent her style and are generally included in records in her homage. Billie frequently sang ‘em in her live presentations.
- (MT 114) Everything Happens For The Best (Smith)
- (MT 134) * Tell Me More, And More And Then Some More
- (MT 116) ** Long Gone Blues
- (MT 178) * Don’t Explain (Arthur Herzog, Jr) Hush now, don’t explain/ Just say you’ll remain/ Unless you’re mad, don’t explain/ My love, don’t explain/ What is there to gain/ Skip that lipstick/ Don’t explain// You know that I love you/ And what loving does/ All my thoughts are real/ For I’m so completely yours
- (MT 208) * Now Or Never (Lewis)
- (MT 212) * Somebody’s On My Mind (Arthur Herzog, Jr)
- (LR 71) You Gotta Show Me
- (LR 125) *** Billie’s Blues (aka I Love My Man) I love my man/ I’m a liar if I say I don’t/ I love my man/ I’m a liar if I say I don’t/ But I’ll quit my man/ I’m a liar if I say I won’t/ I’ve been your slave, baby/ Ever since I’ve been your babe/ I’ve been your slave/ Ever since I’ve been your babe/ But before I’ll be your dog/ I’ll see you in your grave. This was Billie’s tour the force, there are almost 20 different recordings along her career; the one that I pointed out here being a live session with the longest known version of it. Delicious.
- (MT 249) * Stormy Blues
- (MT 276) ***1/2 Lady Sings The Blues ( Alberta Nichols)
- (MT 278) ** God Bless The Child (Arthur Herzog, Jr)
- (LR 192) **** Fine And Mellow My man don’t love me/ Treats me oh so mean/ My man he don’t love me/ Treats me awfully/ He’s the lowest man/ That I’ve ever seen/ …/ But when he starts in to love me/ He’s so fine and mellow.
I’m forced to mention here another Billie favorite, just to compare the lyrics. Those four songs are a tribute to love and to be loved. A recurrent theme for Billie.
My Man (Mon Homme) originally a French tune, it was also one of the public favorites in her live presentations. Here’s how the lyrics goes: It cost me a lot/ But there’s one thing that I’ve got/ It’s my man/ It’s my man/ Cold or wet/ Tired, you bet/ All of this I’ll soon forget/ With my man/ He’s not much on looks/ He’s no hero out of books/ But I love him/ Yes, I love him.
Arthur Freed (1894-1973)
- (MT 11) Yankee Doodle Never Went To Town
- (MT 20) * I Cried For You – this record was Billie’s sales champion in Brunswick. That’s the first “standard” she recorded, a song from 1923 by Arthur Freed & Gus Arnheim & Abe Lyman. Beautiful melody
- (MT 21) Guess Who?
- (MT 56) ** Sun Showers – a nice melody, in a swung tempo
- (MT 57) * Yours And Mine
- (MT 247) I Thought About You
- (MT 296) *** Darn That Dream (1939) a nice and sophisticated melody, lyrics by Eddie De Lange. Billie recorded it in her last years, those beautiful moments in Los Angeles .
- (MT 310) But Beautiful
- (MT 319) * All The way a beautiful song, unforgettable in Sinatra voice, that Billie recorded in her last year, under Ray Ellis violins.
Harry Warren (1893-1981)
His real name was Salvatore Guaragna, a son of Italian immigrants.
- (MT 15) * You Let Me Down
- (MT 50) How Could You
- (MT 98) Say It With A Kiss
- (LR 6) Jeepers Creepers
- (MT 225) * I Only Have Eyes For You (1934) a lovely melody, lyrics by Al Dubin.
Jimmy McHugh (1894-1969) Dorothy Fields
Dorothy Fields was one of the great lyricists ever. In here, we found three wonderful McHugh works with her lyrics.
- (MT 16) Spreading Rhythm Around
- (MT 36) * I Can’t Give Anything But Love lyrics by Dorothy Fields
- (MT 77) * I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love
- (MT 172) * On The Sunny Side Of The Street (1930) an all-time jazz favorite, has lyrics by Dorothy Fields: Grab your coat and get your hat/ Leave your worry on the doorstep/ Just direct your feet/ To the sunny side of the street. Billie rendering was unfortunately less inspirated.
- (MT 274) *** I Must Have That Man (1928) also lyrics by Dorothy Fields
Walter Donaldson (1893-1947)
A famous songwriter, Donaldson lived long time in Hollywood and composed and arranged music for many motion pictures.
- (MT 22) Did I Remember
- (LR 44) You’re Driving Me Crazy
- (MT 154) **1/2 Love Me Or Leave Me (1928) this is a wonderful song, lyrics by Gus Kahn: This affair is killin’ me/ I can’t stand uncertainly / Tell me now I’ve got to know/ Whether you want me to stay or to go/ Very Billie, isn’t it? I selected this track with Teddy Wilson to represent the tune.
Burton Lane (1912-1997)
- (MT 21) Guess Who
- (MT 88) * Says My Heart
- (MT 138) * I Hear Music
- (MT 227) *** Everything I Have Is Yours (1933) for the film “Dancing Lady” has lyrics by Harold Adamson: Everything I have is yours/ You are part of me/ Everything I have is yours/ My destiny. No wonder Billie selected this tune and made it a superb recording.
Richard Whiting (1891-1938)
- (MT 5) * Miss Brown To You
- (MT 47) Sentimental And Melancholy
- (MT 191) ** Guilty
- (MT 238) *** He’s Funny That Way
- (MT 245) * Too Marvelous For Words (1937) with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, it is probably his best effort.
John Green (1908-1989)
Green was a musical director and wrote not that many songs, but he has four tunes included in Billie’s repertoire. And among them is Body and Soul, an all-time jazz standard classic.
- (MT 46) * You Showed Me The Way
- (MT 153) * I Cover The Waterfront
- (MT 166) * I’m Yours
- (MT 298) ***1/2 Body And Soul (1930) an unforgettable performance. Lyrics by Heyman: My heart is sad and lonely/ For you I sigh, for you dear only/ Why haven’t you seen it/ I’m all for you body and soul.
Rube Bloom (1902-1976)
Rube Bloom was a very good pianist and also a bandleader. Billie selected a couple of his best works.
- (LR 59)*** Maybe You’ll Be There (1947) what was the reason I liked this song that much? A minor tune from Bloom, a bad sound quality live recording in 1949, what was it? I don´t know, but so I did. Lyrics by Sammy Gallop: Each time I see a crowd of people, / Just like a fool I stop and stare, / It’s really not the proper thing to do, / But maybe you’ll be there. / I go out walking after midnight , Along the lonely thoroughfare, / It’s not the time or place to look for you, / But maybe you’ll be there.
- (MT 239) ** I Can’t Face The Music
- (MT 295) ***1/2 Day In, Day Out (1939) probably, his greatest hit, a song full of passion. One of my favorites. It is a great partnership, the lyrics are by Johnny Mercer: Day in, day out/ That same old voodoo follows me about / That same old pounding in my heart,/ whenever I think of you / And baby I think of you / Day in and day out. There is something that makes me remember Cole Porter (the voodoo, perhaps?); it is to regret Billie never recorded You Do Something To Me… (do, do, that voodoo that you do so well).
- (MT 324) Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me
Duke Ellington (1899-1974)
Ellington was a musician in the broad sense of the word. Through his orchestra passed some of the biggest names in jazz. He was also a composer, despite the fact they were not actually composed as songs, but as instrumental pieces. A legend.
Ellington was the closest contact Billie had with the greatest composers. To focus in the recorded tracks, she made a short film with his band, “Symphony in Black” in 1935 (s. 3a). Then, in 1945, she had a radio broadcast with Duke’s Orchestra in the California Philarmonic Auditorium during the Esquire Magazine Second Annual Jazz Concert. In 1952 she took part in the Duke’s 25th Anniversary Concert in Carnegie Hall.
- (LR 1) Saddest Tale this song, by Ellington, has the merit to be one of the first recorded by Billie, in the early thirties.
- (MT 226) ** Solitude
- (MT 256) **1/2 Prelude To A Kiss
- (MT 281) ***1/2 Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me (1943) lyrics by Bob Russell: Do nothin’ till you hear from me / Pay no attention to what’s said, / Why people tear the seams of anyone’s dream / Is over my head. Wow, I still can hear Ben Webster’s sax behind me.
- (MT 287) **** Sophisticated Lady (1933) originally instrumental, the lyrics are by Mitchell Parish: Diamonds shining, dancing, dining with some man in a restaurant / Is that all you really want? / No, sophisticated lady, / I know, you miss the love you lost long ago / And when nobody is nigh, you cry. It sounds quite Billie, right? One of my favorites.
Richard Rodgers (1902-1979)
Rodgers was one of the most prolific American composers but his partnership with Billie did not render that many tracks. All of the songs listed below have lyrics by Lorenz Hart.
(MT 220) * Blue Moon
(MT 292) ***1/2 I Didn’t Know What Time It Was (1939) wow, this was Billie sole recording of this song, in LA, 1957. An unforgettable performance that deserved an extra half-star. Listen: … /Grand to be alive, to be young, to be mad, to be yours alone! /…
(MT 312) It’s Easy To Remember
(MT 315) Glad To Be Unhappy
(MT 326) You Took Advantage Of Me
Vernon Duke (1903-1969)
Three wonderful songs by Duke, born in Russia as Vladimir Dukelsky.
- (MT 93) * I Can’t Get Started (1936) not only mine, but one of the jazz groups favorites, lyrics by Ira Gershwin: Iv’e been around the world in a plane/ Settled revolutions in Spain / The North Pole I have charted / But can’t get started with you.
- (MT 233) *** Autumn In New York (1934) its particularity is to have both words and music by Duke.
- (MT 288) *** April in Paris
Jerome Kern (1885-1945) Oscar Hammerstein
Kern was one of the greatest, having influence in a generation of composers.
- (MT 32) The Way You Look Tonight
- (MT 43) ** Why Was I Born
- (MT 74) ** Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man (1927) from the famous musical “Show Boat”, has lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II: Tell me he’s lazy/ Tell me he’s slow/ Tell me I’m crazy, maybe, I know/ Can’t help lovin’ that man of mine.
- (MT 118) Yesterdays (1933) from the musical “Roberta”, it has very elaborated lyrics by Otto Harbach: Yesterdays, yesterdays / Days I knew as happy, sweet sequestered days… Billie said it was one of her favorite tunes and recorded it three times, but still owe us a memorable performance.
- (MT 268) ** A Fine Romance (1936) from the film “Swing Time” featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, lyrics by Dorothy Fields. A pleasant song, with plenty of movement and swing.
Harold Arlen (1905-1986) Johnny Mercer
How to select any of these wonderful songs? All of them got high standards, so I decided to included the two that have lyrics by Johnny Mercer. I also want to point out that the unforgettable “Over the Rainbow” from the film The Wizard of Oz (1939) with Judy Garland is another masterpiece from Arlen (lyrics from Harburg).
- (MT 236) *** Stormy Weather
- (MT 265) ***1/2 Come Rain Or Come Shine (1946) I’m gonna love you like nobody’s loved you, / Come rain or come shine. / High as a mountain and deep as a river, / Come rain or come shine. And so Mercer goes, and Billie follows with passion.
- (MT 266) *** I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues
- (MT 283) ***1/2 Ill Wind
- (MT 302) **** One For My Baby (1943) one of my favorite songs, the honor goes to the lyrics, look how it starts: It’s quarter to three, there’s no one in the place/ Except you and me/ … / We’re drinking my friend, to the end/ Of a brief episode/ Make it one for my baby/ And one more for the road. Billie wouldn’t do any better.
Irving Berlin (1888-1989)
Berlin , unlike Cole Porter, seems to be a perfect match for Billie. Almost all the songs she recorded got high evaluation, as you can see below. He is probably the most known name in the American popular music. Berlin is also known to write complete songs, music and words. Berlin is also one of the most prolific composers, having written almost 900 songs; however, the three I selected are from the early thirties.
- (MT 41) He Ain’t Got Rhythm
- (MT 42) ** This Year Kisses
- (MT 232) *1/2 Remember
- (MT 240) ** How Deep Is The Ocean (1932) listen to Billie’s lament: And if I ever lost you/ How much would I cry?/ How deep is the ocean? / How high is the sky?
- (MT 251) ** I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm
- (MT 253) ** Always
- (MT 272) *** Isn’t This A Lovely Day?
- (MT 282) *** Cheek To Cheek (1935) the song first appeared in the film “Top Hat”. A wonderful happy song: Heaven, I’m in Heaven/ And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak/ And I seem to find the happiness I seek/ When we’re out together dancing, cheek to cheek.
- (MT 300) *** Say It Isn’t So (1932) Billie for sure meant that when she sung this wonderful song: Everywhere I go, everyone I know, whispers that you’re growing tired of me/ Say it isn’t so.
Cole Porter (1891-1964)
Cole Porter is my favorite composer. However, there seems to be no good match between Porter and Billie – a clear example is Night and Day. Probably, two different styles. Porter is famous by his lyrics, worked to perfection – a characteristic of those composers that made both music and lyrics.
- (MT 125) **** Night And Day (1932) this song is probably one of the best ever written, look at the lyrics in the first verse: Like the beat beat beat of the tom-tom/ When the jungle shadows fall/ Like the tick tick tock of the stately clock/ As it stands against the wall/ Like the drip drip drip of the raindrops/ When the summer shower is through/ So a voice within me keeps repeating you… you… you… Night and day, you are the one/From the musical “Gay Divorce” in the same year.
- (MT 143) * Let’s Do It
- (MT 183) *** What Is This Thing Called Love?
- (MT 223) *** Easy To Love (1936) this is a wonderful love song, listen: You’d be so easy to love/ So easy to idolize/… The song is from the film “Born To Dance” where there was also another gem, I’ve got you under my skin, that Billie never recorded.
- (MT 228) ** Love For Sale
- (MT 270) * I Get A Kick Out Of You
- (MT 293) *** Just One Of Those Things (1935) From the musical “Jubilee”. What an elaborate lyrics in the final verse: So good-bye, dear, and amen/ Here’s hoping we meet now and then/ It was great fun/ But it was just one of those things.
- (MT 329) * All Of You
George Gershwin (1898-1937)
Gershwin was the composer with the largest number of tunes sung by Billie Holiday in this collection. All the commented songs below have their lyrics by his brother Ira Gershwin. Reading these lyrics is like an online university education in song craftsmanship.
- (MT 24) Summertime
- (MT 71) * Nice Work If You Can Get It
- (MT 72) * Things Are Looking Up
- (MT 126) * The Man I Love (1924) a wonderful love song: Maybe I shall meet him Sunday / Maybe Monday, maybe not / Still I’m sure to meet him one day / Maybe Tuesday will be my good news day. From the famous play “Lady Be Good” is one of the most popular songs ever. Billie do not honor the song, though, this being her sole recorded track.
- (MT 198) * Porgy
- (MT 291) *** A Foggy Day (1937) And suddenly, I saw you standing right there / And in foggy London town, the sun was shining everywhere. Beautiful.
- (MT 297) *** But Not For Me
- (MT 301) *** Our Love Is Here To Stay
- (MT 303) ***1/2 They Can’t Take That Away From Me
- (MT 304) ***1/2 Embraceable You (1930) listen: Embrace me, my sweet embraceable you! Embrace me, you irreplaceable you! From the play “Girl Crazy” and sung by Gene Kelly in the film “An American in Paris ” (1951). A jewel, one of the best songs ever written; also a memorable tune by Billie.
- (MT 305) *** Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off
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