Revinylization #39: New Reissues of Classic Ella and Billie on Verve and Decca

Decades after their deaths, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday loom large over the American music landscape, inspiring every jazz vocalist, especially the women. Fitzgerald and Holiday's contributions are vast, their work timeless, their joys and sorrows expressed in songs both thrilling and crushing.

Jazz as a form of popular song has largely faded from America's music culture, but Fitzgerald and Holiday's brilliance lives on, a beacon to their artistic excellence. Much evidence for that excellence can be heard in two new vinyl sets, both produced by Ken Druker.

Neither of these sets is pure analog. Ella's was prepared from Ellen Fitton's 2003 digital transfers, which were used for Jukebox Ella: The Complete Verve Singles, Vol.1, which documented Fitzgerald's entire output of singles on the label—50 total, from 1956 to 1966. Chosen by Fitzgerald with assistance from her manager, Verve Records owner and producer Norman Granz, with an eye toward scoring chart hits, these performances reveal Ella's penchant for swinging, playful material, which she uniquely transformed alongside some of the best musicians in jazz. Pressed at Precision Record Pressing in Burlington, Ontario, Canada, the three-LP set is dead-quiet, from the earliest mono singles through the late '50s stereo tracks, arranged chronologically. The discs in my set were ruler flat, the trifold packaging flawless. Poly-lined sleeves would have been a nice touch, but no matter: Most of us will supply our own. The sound is fine if a bit congested in the strictest audiophile terms.

Ella sings with heart-crushing intimacy on one song and expounds in joyous, rollicking swing the next. Her vocal image is large and centered, the various ensembles placed in the background. The information provided in the liner notes is generous, including a complete list of personnel for each performance and the date of the original release.

Fitzgerald's perfect diction, rhythmic feel, contagious flow, and luminous tone light up the third track on Side A, "Too Young for the Blues," supported by a large brass section. The next highlight, on Side B, is Buddy Bregman's busy big-band arrangement of "The Silent Treatment," followed by "Hear My Heart," a busy Afro-Cuban burner and one of very few tracks where the accompaniment threatens to overwhelm Fitzgerald's vocals. (It doesn't.)

"Hotta Chocolatta," a corny single from 1957, swings so hard it's impossible to not get caught up in its spirit. Ella's rendition of "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," a version of her 1938 hit with drummer Chick Webb, is incredible fun.Hard-swinging Ella is offset by introspective Ella—boisterous organ jazz on "Your Red Wagon" by sweet introspection on "Travelin' Light." There's a clutch of Christmas songs, a couple of bossa nova standards, some rocking belters, and at least one Sinatra-style crooner. The set closes with the devastating "Lonely Is."

Billie Holiday's 1952–58 recordings on Verve have long been easy to find, especially cheap reissues and EU-based, digitally sourced vinyl records that defy US copyright law. In the late '80s, Columbia reissued many of her 1930s/'40s recordings on its Quintessential Billie Holiday Masterworks series. They did it again in 2001 on Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933–1944, using CEDAR audio restoration technology.

But reissues of Holiday's Decca recordings, cut on 78s between 1944 and 1950, were rare until The Complete Billie Holiday Decca Recordings was released on CD in 1991. This vinyl set I'm reviewing here—50 tracks on four LPs—is based on that digital collection. It includes master takes off all 36 songs she recorded for the label plus extra versions and alternate takes.

Holiday's incredible instrument, its unique texture and inner yearning, was famously tinged with sorrow, but there were other tinges, too: of slyness, knowing, humor. All these qualities shine through n this wondrous vinyl set, pressed at Hand Drawn in Addison, Texas, which was founded in 2014 and calls itself the "most advanced vinyl pressing facility in the world." Few details are given.

The tracks on the set come from a range of sources. Some come from original acetate safety discs, transferred to digital tape by engineer Steven Lasker in 1990. Early 1950s disc-to-tape transfers were used for three titles, and for the tracks recorded between 1946 and 1948, fresh transfers from disc were used. "Engineer Doug Schwartz took special care to ascertain which of the various tapes in MCA's vaults were the original 30ips masters for Billie's sessions between August 17, 1949, and March 8, 1950. This set contains one-step transfers from these originals," according to the liner notes.

Which might explain why so much of this set sounds immediate, transparent, and natural. It's as if you're with Billie, producer Milt Gabler, and the band at Decca's New York Studios at 50 West 57th Street.

The first half emerges as if from a dream, all doleful torch songs and laments. With "Solitude," Holiday grows more playful. Her unique, familiar phrasing becomes more apparent, coupled with a surreal, disembodied, powerfully disquieting allure. On "Tain't Nobody's Business If I Do," she burns at low simmer, cooking up a stew of subtle inflection and effortless dynamic control. Animated and in control, Holiday swings and swerves, with her special lilt, through "Baby Get Lost," "Them There Eyes," a couple of wry duets with Louis Armstrong, then a hard-swinging "Now or Never." On the next-to-last track—an early recording of "God Bless the Child"—Holiday rises above a mawkish Mitch Millerish chorus with an inspired vocal performance.

Not 100% analog, but an embarrassment of vinyl riches.

georgehifi's picture

Great, but I hope for you vinyl guys sake, it hasn't been "squashed up" by the "compression freaks" in the digital tapering.

Cheers George

oldslat88's picture

Really appreciate the review but it's not clear to me from your review what the title of the Billie Holiday release is or under what label it was released. Very interested in this set but after reading the article several times I only see titles for previous Holiday compilations. With thanks and apologies if I've somehow missed mention of it.

Mike-Foley's picture

I’ve just googled “ Billie Holiday: The Complete Decca Recordings 4LP Box Set” and set featured in the article appeared.

Mike-Foley's picture

oldslat88's picture

Google searched too but didn't come up with that link. Thanks a bunch.

mind messed up's picture

Ken, do you know if the Holiday boxed set was cut in mono or stereo? Thanks