A Forgotten Classic: Billie Holiday, ‘Music for Torching’

Billie Holiday's 'Music for Torching'
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Verve Records

Who among us is not moved by the mushy love ballad, or the unrequited love ballad, or the ballad that exists simply because ballads tug at the heart and make you blush and turn your insides all gooey? Think of Beyoncé singing Etta James’ “At Last” or Whitney Houston singing Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” – these slow, dramatic songs will break your heart, or make it beat faster, or maybe even send it crashing into your stomach.

Those two are more modern takes on what’s known as a torch song – a sentimental, often sad song about love in its more difficult incarnations; in those two cases, love that takes forever to come about, or love that is hopeless and doomed to live on only in memory. Singers from Frank Sinatra to Diana Krall to, well, Whitney Houston and Beyoncé have proven themselves supremely adept at singing torch songs, at giving voice to the complexities of love in the form of these great ballads.

Billie Holiday was a great singer of torch songs, and in 1955, she and producer Norman Granz put together a short but potent collection of them, called, fittingly enough, Music for Torching. It’s not an album you hear about much when discussing Holiday’s life’s work, but it is well worth seeking out, for Holiday fans and lovers of sentimental songs alike.

“Come Rain or Come Shine” is a song of resignation, with lines like “I guess when you met me / It was just one of those things," which Holiday delivers with no small measure of sadness. The great saxophonist Benny Carter is her shadow throughout, walking behind her, phrase for heartbreaking phrase, until the very end of the song, when his horn and “Sweets” Edison’s trumpet entwine to lead Holiday out.

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“Gone with the Wind” shows a bit of wear in Holiday’s voice, as she is able to control her trills and sliding notes, but only with a bit more effort than she had once required. The result is more than worth the effort.

“It Had to Be You” is a welcome stroll through a well-worn standard, once again with Carter following her lines until his solo (a brief but lyrical thing), after which he cedes his spot to Edison as Holiday elongates her phrases, drawing them out subtly but surely.

“Isn’t This a Lovely Day?” closes the album definitively, perhaps sadly. Lovers of sentimental songs don’t want them to end. Fortunately, once the needle hits the runout groove, it’s easy to lift it and start the record all over again.


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