In the liner notes to A Tribute to Billie Holiday executive producer, Peter Stormare talks about how he first got turned on to the legendary singer. It was 1970 and he was a teenager in Sweden. Jimi Hendrix, "one of the gods of rock and roll," had died and he and his friends were in mourning. His mother recognizing his unhappiness suggested a book that might help him deal with his hero's death. The book was Lady Sings the Blues, the autobiography of Billie Holiday. The book's passionate honesty, he says, when he finally got around reading it, changed his life.
It is interesting that it is her book and her life rather than the music that Stormare highlights in his notes. Indeed, it is interesting that he has nothing at all to say about her music. After all, in the end it is the music that is the whole reason for the tribute in the first place. Not that the tragedy of her life is unimportant, clearly it is. But were it not for the greatness of her music, her tragedy would have melted into obscurity like so many thousands of others. In some sense her music is the expression of her life. Her gift was the ability to use her talent to make her audience feel what it was like to be Billie Holiday, to feel the highs, to feel the lows.
The tribute begins with an introductory reading from the autobiography by actress Angela Bassett. Other readings are scattered sporadically among the thirteen musical covers collected for the album from a variety of contemporary artists. Bassett's impassioned readings about Holiday's poverty and addiction, her sexual mistreatment as a child, and her penniless death while facing arrest for drug possession are some of the best things on the CD. They are raw and gritty and they help to define the singer's voice and style. Unfortunately this is not always the case with some of the musical selections.
The tracks on the album are not really attempts by the artists to mimic Holiday. There are some fine, even memorable performances on the album, but there are those that miss the mark, especially if that mark is in emulating Holiday's raw emotion. The most disappointing was the less than dynamic version of Abel Meeropol's "Strange Fruit" turned in by Babyface. It has an otherworldly quality that belies the horrific content of the anti-lynching classic. Boz Scaggs does a smooth workmanlike job on "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me," and the guitar and keyboard accompaniment are nicely done, but raw is clearly not the best adjective to describe the track. There is an artistic sophistication about performances like these, Shelby Lynne's "You've Changed," and Rocco DeLucca's "Lady Sings the Blues" that softens the passion.
Grammy winner, Esperanza Spalding's "I'll Look Around" puts a more contemporary spin on the song and while not free from sophistication has the feel of authenticity. It is the class of the album, but it is not alone. Erin Boheme does a girlish sexy "Them There Eyes." Patti Austin handles the standard, "Body and Soul," with some creative phrasing and there is some nice backing by Dave Koz on sax. Brownstone delivers the goods with a rocking take of "God Bless the Child." Frida Payne does a swinging version of "Billie's Blues" that looks back to the forties and Deborah Cox has a sweet sound on "Fine and Mellow."
For the purist, there is no substitute for the original: there is no one that can do justice to some of these songs like Lady Day. Still the more you listen to the tracks on this tribute, the better you like them. If they will never replace Billie Holiday in the old timers who still remember her, if they send us back to some of those old records, if they manage to send some new listeners over to YouTube to listen to the Lady herself, well surely that's something worth doing.