One of my absolute favorite Billie Holiday tracks for Verve Records is Darn That Dream. The musicians assembled for that January 7, 1957 recording date were top shelf—and the song's pulse-like pace was perfect for Billie, who by then was audibly entering the autumn of her life.
Billie recorded Darn That Dream toward the end of a five-day recording session—her last for Verve. The early 1957 session began on January 3d and ended on January 9th, resulting in 14 songs—enough material for two albums: Body and Soul and Songs for Distingue Lovers.
Between 1952 and 1957, Billie recorded more than 100 songs for the Clef/Norgran/Verve labels—about a third of her total output. These songs eventually appeared on four 10-inch albums and 17 12-inch albums. To be honest, many of the songs recorded during this period were all wrong for Billie—in most cases lyrics that were fine in the hands of pop singers sounded silly delivered by an artist with her depth and passion.
The song selection for her January 1957 session was particularly off. Tunes like Day In, Day Out, A Foggy Day and Embraceable You may have been home runs for Frank Sinatra, but Billie's treatment was more funeral dirge than swinging lovers. Billie just wasn't a ring-a-ding-ding kind of gal, which should have been obvious to producer Norman Granz.
As a result, much of the work produced during the January 1957 session feels lethargic and thickly sentimental. But instead of blaming the song choices, many critics have held Billie's frail and worn voice accountable. Which is unfair.
Billie's voice may have been a tad tired, but with smarter material that suited her at the time, her voice would have sounded sharp rather than confused. To quote Billie herself from this period: "Anything I sing, it's part of my life." I hear that.
Many of Billie's Verve dates were recorded in Los Angeles—not because producer Norman Granz insisted but because Billie herself was constantly on the West Coast being slapped around by abusive husbands, seducing love interests or cleaning up legal troubles. In addition, after her drug arrest and prison term in the late 1940s, her New York cabaret card was revoked, preventing her from working in New York City clubs and keeping her on the move.
Like many of the other Verve dates, Billie's January 1957 session was recorded in Capitol's Los Angeles recording studios where Sinatra and Nat King Cole were waxing their pop LPs. To give the Holiday session a distinct Capitol sound, Granz brought in Harry "Sweets" Edison, whose wandering muted trumpet solos had already become a signature sound on Sinatra's Songs for Swinging Lovers album and Cole's 1956 LPs.
But Billie didn't take well to the Sinatra/Cole formula. Songs with cute, throwaway lyrics just weren't her bag—at fast or slow tempos.
One strong exception during this session, however, is Darn That Dream (Moonlight in Vermont is another). Both songs remain fascinating audio documents.
Billie had never recorded Darn That Dream before this date, and she's accompanied by an absolutely perfect group of musicians: In addition to "Sweets" Edison, Billie is joined by Ben Webster on tenor sax, Jimmy Rowles on piano, Barney Kessel on guitar, Red Mitchell on bass and Alvin Stoller on drums.
Darn That Dream was the second song recorded on January 7th. The first was Day In, Day Out, the master for which was captured on the first take. Darn That Dream required three takes—and even the master is rough in places, which is part of its charm.
Kessel kicks off the song with eight bars of large, open-string guitar chords, Billie was supposed to come in with Webster behind her on the ninth bar, but Webster is heard first for about three beats before Billie starts the lyrics. They take the song through the chorus. Then Kessel backs her, with Webster returning for the reprise.
When Edison comes in with a muted trumpet, he instantly quotes It Might as Well Be Spring and then Half As Lovely, Twice as True, a Sinatra hit for Capitol in 1954. Although the quote trivializes Billie's effort, the meshing of the two songs by Edison is quite brilliant when you think about it. Stoller punches the song's theme on bass drum behind Edison and Kessel. Then Red Mitchell takes a bass solo.
Webster returns, at his smokey best, and Billie winds the song down, with Edison wandering around behind her. The song closes a bit rough, with Billie unable to sustain the final note. Yet Billie has some terrific moments on this track—especially in the second run through of the chorus. Listen as she inverts the melody and teases out the lyrics. What a sublime recording. I must have listened to it about 25 times yesterday, and each one was a different experience.
As soon as Darn That Dream is finished, listen to Moonlight in Vermont. What a contrast. Billie's voice is a bit stretched, but that's what makes this fall classic so perfect—her pained sorrow. Be sure to listen carefully to what Kessel is doing behind her. Barney is spectacular.
Jimmy Rowles, the pianist on the date, summed up Billie voice during this period in an interview for John Chilton's 1989 book, The Billie Holiday Story (1939-1959):
"I think she had the most distinctive voice, interpretation, phrasing and intrinsic musical feeling of anyone I ever heard. She didn't really sing. She transmitted feeling. She was soul."
As a footnote , Alvin Stoller, who was probably the busiest session drummer on the West Coast in the 1950s, played only the January 3d, 4th, 7th, and 8th dates. For some reason he couldn't make the last one on the 9th. Instead, Larry Bunker got the call. Bunker, in Al Young's liner notes from the remaster of Body and Soul in 2001, recalls how he wound up on the date:
"I had started playing for Peggy Lee, for whom Rowles was the pianist. We'd been working at the old Ciro's in Hollywood. Jimmy says, 'You wanna do a record date tomorrow?' I said 'Sure.' I packed up my drums and put 'em in my car, then went and did what I did when I was in my twenties.
The next day, probably around 9:30 or 10 o'clock in the morning, I get a phone call. The voice at the other end says, 'Hi. Larry Bunker? This is Norman Granz.' I said 'Yeahh?'
He said 'Well, there's a whole bunch of us down here, getting ready to record with Billie. And the last I heard you were supposed to be here.' And so I said, 'Norman, I will be there in a minute.'
Billie was sort of standing around waiting for the white boy to show up, quietly steaming. I had never heard the woman in person. I had never met her. I was just a working stiff, trying to show up for the date and a little bit hung over. She was really steaming, but she never said a word. And Norman was nothing more than civility. He was, 'Okay, let's go.' I was the non-veteran. Everybody else had done this before, and done it a lot.
So we proceeded to go ahead and record the work, go in and listen to playbacks, and go through the usual routine.
Toward the end of the day, I was leaving the control room. I opened the door and Billie was coming out. She kind of acknowledged me, blew smoke in my face, smiled and said, 'Well listen baby. You took your sweet-ass time to get here. But once you did, you did play pretty for me.' You know, I've always treasured that."
Listen carefully to Darn That Dream (and Moonlight in Vermont). There are deep messages in both songs.
Wax tracks: Darn That Dream and Moonlight in Vermont can be found here on the CD Body and Soul or as downloads at iTunes.
Wax video clip: Billie in 1957 can be seen and heard here in this famous clip from The Sound of Jazz. Dig the gauntlet of jazz giants in the beginning as Billie takes a seat. They seem more edgy in her presence than she is in theirs. And rightfully so. She had paid more jazz dues than all of them combined.