Thursday, November 15, 2012

Standard: Billie Holiday - You Go To My Head

Some songs never grow old. Sure, some may be forgotten, but when you find them again, it's like opening up an old bottle of brandy. Virtually all of Billie Holiday's records are like brandy. She's a song stylist, not just a singer, so she can breathe life over the most dismal records (and there were plenty tin pan allen throwaways in the 1930's). But when you match a highly stylized singer with a highly stylized song, you take all that brandy, mix it together and you get a frat party. Take Holiday's reading of the J. Fred Coots classic "You Go To My Head." Years before Stevie Wonder wrote the book on pretty song harmonies, there was this 1938 gem. It sorta reminds me of Cole Porter's "Night and Day" in that the song is so gorgeous anybody can try singing it and sound good. Holiday recorded the song a number of times. First in 1938 to chart success, then in 1952 on her first full length album and then live in a rare duet with Helen Merrill in 1956.

The earliest recording is the most accessible and bound to hook new listeners on Holiday's work. It's a mid-tempo, sophisticated piece. The backing is subtle. Pianist Claude Thornhill strolls behind Holiday every time she sings a line, filling out the empty spaces of the song. For the bridge, there's a light tenor sax solo that's just as meaningful if not as memorable as Holiday's own vocal reading. Everything about the song is beautiful. The lyrics are sophisticated. Lines such as "sparkling burgundy brew," "bubbles in a glass of champagne," "You intoxicate my soul with your eyes" and the song title "you go to my head" sound high class and poetic. There's nothing about beer or picking somebody up from a bar here.

The second recording during the early 50s shows a major change in Holiday's voice. It's a lot deeper and fragile yet still poignant. For those entranced by the 1930's version, listening to her sing the song in such a different way should be a treat. All of her characteristic phrasing is here; she still catches the hook of the song and sings it in a cool way. The tempo is a lot slower and the backing more sparse. One of the greatest jazz guitarist of all time, Barney Kessel, gives the song a big boost. I would always listen to Holiday's 1950's records and wonder who was strumming so beautifully behind her. Kessel adds a pinch of class and sophistication to the song that arguably makes it a stronger performance than its 1930's counter-part.

For historical purposes, and also pure fun, there's a live, rare recording of Holiday in the apartment of jazz critic Leonard Feather singing the record. I guess they were having a random jam session. She suggests the song and then jokes about how she doesn't like clarinets (poking fun at contemporaries Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw). Jazz vocalist Helen Merrill alternates lines with Holiday, singing in a smokey, classy tone. It's rare that Lady Day ever sang with another person, so this was a real treat. Her reading was more drawn out than the other two versions but basically sounded like the one from a few years earlier.

Feed your mp3 player with as much Billie Holiday as you possibly can. Try all three of her versions of "You Go to My Head" if you want. But also, if you're feeling extra sophisticated, download pianist Teddy Wilson's version too.

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