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Beyond Billie's Blues


February 21, 2006

It's not surprising that Billie Holiday recorded Fats Waller's most famous song, "Ain't Misbehavin'," in 1956. But given what we know of her life, it is surprising that she sang it with absolute purity, as if she weren't remotely tempted to misbehave. Backed by an allstar group that included trumpeter Charlie Shavers and tenor saxophonist Budd Johnson, Holiday's treatment is all the more compelling because she sings with an obvious awareness of the joys of misbehaving - of staying out late and partying - only to reject such pleasures in favor of her true love's kisses.

That Holiday, whose lifetime of self-destructive misbehavior has been exhaustively documented, could sing so convincingly of sticking to the straight and narrow is a testament to her gifts as a musician, and as an actress.We often think of Holiday as a tormented woman who sang only from her own life experiences, who crooned about errant lovers who cheated on her and beat her only because she knew them personally. But Holiday could do much more: She was not a musical primitive who merely translated her own suffering into song. Rather, like Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole, Holiday was a thorough professional who could interpret any lyric in the Great American Songbook - from the "Dese 'n' Dose" Ebonics of "Porgy and Bess" to the salon formality of Cole Porter or Oscar Hammerstein - and make it seem like an extension of herself.

That point can't be emphasized strongly enough: In recent years, popular perceptions of Holiday as an icon of suffering have come dangerously close to overshadowing her musical legacy. ... [MORE]



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