In May 1947, Billie Holiday was arrested in New York for drug possession. After her conviction, she was sentenced to a year and a day at a West Virginia prison. She served 10 months. Upon her release in early March 1948, Holiday returned to the New York area. Upon her arrival, Holiday learned that her manager had arranged for her to sing at Carnegie Hall in just a few weeks. Holiday protested, saying she hadn't sung a note while incarcerated. But she had little choice. Work meant income, and a concert of this magnitude was ideal for instantly rehabilitating her artistic reputation. So rehearsals were set up in New Jersey, and in the weeks leading up to the concert, Holiday worked diligently with bassist John Levy, pianist Bobby Tucker and drummer Denzil Best.
The March 1948 Carnegie Hall event came to be known as the Billie Holiday Comeback Concert. It was a success and led to a new deal with Decca Records. John Levy also found himself with a higher profile and greater freelance opportunities in New York. That is, until George Shearing sat down in front of him at the Clique Club. John was subbing for Buddy Rich's bassist, and Shearing was looking for one for a new trio. Not long afterward, Shearing asked John to join his group, which would include clarinetist Buddy De Franco.
In Part 4 of my five-part interview series with John, the bassist talks about Billie Holiday's comeback, Buddy Rich's integrity and the origins of the George Shearing Quintet:
JazzWax: What do you recall of Billie Holiday’s concert at Carnegie Hall in March 1948?JW: How did you know Tucker?
John Levy: I remember having my usual butterflies before we went on. But as soon as we hit the stage, that was it. I knew what I had to do. We had our act down. We all had rehearsed at [pianist] Bobby Tucker’s house in New Jersey in the weeks before the concert. We did nothing but rehearse with Billie over that period. [Pictured: Billie Holiday at Carnegie Hall in March 1948 with John Levy on bass]
JW: How was Holiday after her time in prison?
JL: She was her old self pretty quick. She was intimate and cozy during those rehearsals. She did whatever she was told to do. I think she was terrified of the idea of the concert after her time in jail. But Bobby laid it down, and that was it. She just followed his lead. The musicians rehearsed first to get our notes together. Then Billie came in and sang. We went over all of the songs, over and over, until we had it down and she was comfortable. She knew this concert was important. [Pictured: Bobby Tucker and Billie Holiday in 1948]
JL: Billie had just gotten out of jail and singing was the only way she could earn money. When she got out, she was living with Bobby Tucker and his wife and his parents in their home in Morristown, N.J. So she was always there for rehearsals. Bobby had called me and Denzil [Best]. Bobby said he also was going to get guitarist Remo Palmieri.
JL: We had worked together at the Three Deuces with [tenor saxophonist] Lucky Thompson. Billie still didn’t have her cabaret card when she got out. You needed that card to work in New York clubs. But she could sing in a concert without it. We had just a couple of weeks to get it together.
JW: Did Joe Glaser set up the concert?
JL: No, a guy who used to work for Joe did. His name was Ed Fishman. The truth is Joe Glaser’s wife was angry at Joe and knew that Billie’s contract with Joe was up. To get back at Joe, she told Ed, who no longer worked for Joe. Ed convinced Billie to let him represent her.
JW: What do you remember most about the event?
JL: That Carnegie Hall was packed. I had to carry my bass over my head just to get on stage through the extra seats they had set up on the stage. The show was based on Billie’s repertoire but she was still so nervous. She cut herself attaching one of those gardenias to her hair before the concert.
JW: Which song do you remember most?
JL: My Man. There’s such a feeling in that one. When Billie sang My Man, like most of the things she sang, you felt like she was really telling that story, that it was her real life. That’s why she was such a great stylist.
JW: Great singer up close?
JL: Great storyteller. She didn’t have the voice of Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald. No, she didn’t have that. What she did have was the exact feeling of a song. You could feel the lyrics and the story with Billie. The story she sang was always so real. When she sang it was like she was telling you things from her life, not remembering words to songs a songwriter wrote. Amazing. I learned a lot about the stories of songs from Ben Webster. He once told me, “I can’t improvise on the melody without knowing the lyrics first.” [Photo of Billie Holiday in 1949 by Herman Leonard/CTSImages.com]
JW: How did you wind up with George Shearing starting in 1948?
JL: Well, here again comes Jimmy Jones. Jimmy and I lived across the street from each other in Brooklyn. Jimmy was working with Sarah Vaughan at the Clique Club in New York at the time. He was working with Sarah opposite Buddy Rich’s big band. One day, Buddy Rich’s bass player left.
JW: What happened?
JL: Jimmy recommended me to Buddy’s manager, to fill in for a couple of weeks until the guy returned. Buddy said, “Sure,” so I came in and played with his band. Every night during this period, George used to be escorted to a seat right beside the bandstand. George was blind, you know, but he had razor sharp ears and enjoyed being in front of the bass player, to hear the swinging thing.
JW: Did Shearing like what he heard?
JL: Evidently, I was a big difference over the bass player who had left. Buddy Rich also could hear and feel the difference. But when Buddy made me an offer, I turned him down. The kind of money he was talking about wasn’t good enough for how hard you had to work trying to play over him in that band [laughs].
JW: How did you get along with Buddy?
JL: Fine. The only problem I had was with his manager, who tried to skim a percentage off my money. When he withheld, I said, “Hold on, hold on, no way.” Buddy overheard what was happening and said to the guy, “Don’t take anything out of his money. Don’t withhold anything. Give him what he’s owed.” I thought that was pretty hip [laughs].
JW: So what happened with George?
JL: George had heard me at the Clique Club and liked what I was doing. Soon afterward his bass player had to leave. The guy’s mother was sick or something. George knew Jimmy Jones, who was playing with Sarah. George liked me and asked Jimmy about me. He said, “What do you think of the guy who was playing with Buddy?”
JW: What did Jimmy say?
JL: Jimmy told George to bring me in. George agreed and called me. I went down and rehearsed with George at the Clique Club. This must have been late 1948.
JW: Just a few months before the quintet was formed?
JL: Yes. But at the time it was just a trio—George, me and Denzil Best. Then Buddy De Franco joined us, making it a quartet. The sound was fantastic, and we played at the Clique Club. Then George and Buddy had to part ways.
JL: Buddy was being offered a deal by Capitol Records and George was given a deal by MGM. But that smooth, cool sound that Buddy and George had created remained in George’s mind. [Critic/producer] Leonard Feather suggested George use vibes and guitar, to reproduce that unison sound. Leonard suggested Marjorie Hyams on vibes and Chuck Wayne on guitar.
JW: So that’s how the George Shearing Quintet came about?
JL: That’s right. The vibes and guitar took the place of the clarinet, sound-wise. The quintet rehearsed and then started recording in January 1949.
JW: How did your bass playing differ in that quintet?
JL: George broke up songs so everyone was playing notes to the same chords, but in octaves. So I'd play my notes on the bottom like a melody line. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear that my bass lines are almost like a tune.
JW: You played bass in the George Shearing Quintet until 1951?
JL: Yes. By then, my road manager duties for the group were taking up too much time. We needed to make a change in the spring of 1951. It was impossible for me to take care of business and play.
Tomorrow, John talks about taking over management duties for George Shearing, playing a measure and a half with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and his personal secrets of a long, happy life.
JazzWax tracks: There is no known radio transcription of Billie Holiday's March 1948 comeback concert at Carnegie Hall. The concert occurred in the middle of a second union ban prohibiting commercial recordings. However, John did record with Holiday in December 1948 along with Bobby Tucker, Denzil Best and Mundell Lowe. These tracks for Decca Records are Weep No More, Girls Were Made to Take Care of Boys, I Loves You Porgy and My Man. They can be found on The Complete Commodore & Decca Masters here.
There is no complete George Shearing Quintet (1949-1953) box. The closest you'll come is the set From Battersea to Broadway (Proper), which includes a majority of the quintet material with John Levy from 1949 to 1951. You'll find this box here.
JazzWax pages: John's two memoirs written with his wife Devra Hall Levy—Men, Women and Girl Singers (2000) and Strollin' (2008), a collection of photographs by John taken over the years of jazz celebrities—can be purchased here.
JazzWax clips: Here's one of Billie Holiday's oddest recordings, for Decca in 1948: Girls Were Made to Take Care of Boys, with a vocal choir and John's strong bass ringing through. Even on pop fare like this, with its Pied Pipers-esque vocal group as a backdrop, Billie makes the song her own. Dig that signature run-down at the end...
And here's John and his white bass with the George Shearing Quintet playing Denzil Best's Move. This clip makes you realize how essential John's bass was to Shearing's beat and swinging time...