/ Music & Art /
Billie, Astrud …
Billie Holliday is my all-time favorite singer. One micro-second of that voice, that style, that timber, that delivery and tears crowd my eyes.
Love will make you drink and gamble
Make you stay out all night long.
My breathing shuts down, I can’t speak, I can barely move. Unmistakable. Isn’t it a funny coicidence that the first vocal record I ever bought was Billie Holliay: a 10″ LP, one of my first 10″ers, back when.
Love will make you do things
That you know is wrong.
Those lyrics drive me nuts. They’re her lyrics: her blues lines.
Yesterday I reminded myself that my life is crowded with women in second place, or third. One first place, only one ever, lots of second, third, fourth place. I loved Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Lena Horne, Jeri Southern not long after I first loved Billie. A bit later Edith Piaff got added, and Lotte Lenya. I heard and loved Astrud Gilberto from the early sixties, but it may have been the 1980s before I was ready to move Astrud next to Billie: the sole occupant of a distant second place.
|Billie was raised in a whore house. She wasn’t one of the whores: she was just a kid. She was like Lotte Lena’s Pirate Jenny in Three Penny Opera: change the sheets, wash-up the glasses, fetch more drinks … scrub the front steps in Baltimore.|
Let me stress here something I said about Astrud not that many decades ago: Billie, Lena … they sound like they’re really hot to get laid; Astrud: she sounds like she’s just been laid: the lay of the century.
scrapbook style to start, then edit
Late 1940s. I rampage up and down North Forest Avenue on my one-speed Columbia. Perfect balance, almost a circus bike: I could pedal no-hunded up the steps to the neighbor’s front porch. But this day I’m poised in my drive way. I see Ted pedaling toward me: older kid, a year or two, from across the street: Babs’ brother, Babs, my buddy. Ted comes right up to me: that never happened before. Oh, yeah: once: he had wanted to know if I’d take a lawn-mowing customer off his hands. I did. Now Ted wants to know if I want to inherit his paper route: National Review Star, one hundred twenty-give customers: the biggest route in Rockville Centre. Sure.
Ted gives me the details: names and addresses of customers, the location and name of the distributor: some drunk who counts papers out for the boys, then collects the paper’s portion of the money collected. How did it work? papers were a nickel, five days a week. I was supposed to collect the bill on Fridays: 25¢. Most people gave 30¢. a nickel tip. I was supposed to owe 2 or 3¢ per to the National Review Star. So I made a couple of cents a paper, plus the tips.
My customers liked me: except for one thing. I delivered the papers alright: often folded within an inch of their lives, unreadable without being repressed: it never occurred to me that anyone might actually want to read the paper! But I didn’t like collecting the money. The money meant nothing to me. Poor as we were once my mother threw my father out she still fed me. I had a bed. I din’t need any money at all. My customers would complain: You didn’t collect last Friday, or the Friday before. That’s 75¢ I owe you: and 15¢ tip. Three nickels would join three quarters in my hand, the nickels pressed firmly, emphatically, unlovingly.
The counting boss was no stickler for balances owed either. By the time I got around to settling with the company I needed a wheelbarrow to carry the change. I needed good pockets to carry my share. I’d pedal jingling across the street, have a vanilla malted at Doc’s: 25¢: and a Clark bar: that was another 5¢. My malted drunk, my Clark bar devoured, I’d pedal home and throw all of the rest of the money into my desk drawer. Soon that drawer was so heavy I could barely struggle it open. And so it went, for say a year: 1948ish. Ah, but then I discovered jazz. And a malted and a Clark bar daily weren’t my only expense. Fridays I’d pedal to Al record store in Sunrise Highway. Al knew what I liked. He’d shove something toward me, recommending it. Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory … When 10″ LPs came in, Al pointed them out to me, argued that they were a bargain. Before long I’d been buying one of two 78 rpms, as usual: Firehouse Five Plus Two, Spike Jones and I’d browse a rack of 10″ LPs.
And that’s where I saw it: Billie Holliday. There was a graphic on the cover: a nude: a black girl, looking unhappy, her head in her arms, gouched in brown and blue, an empty wine bottle, or was it booze? I realized I was responding to my life’s first nude! Oh, a black girl: she outta be easy. She’s already unhappy, I can’t hurt her. I bought her, I paid for her, I took her home, my first such purchase. Oh, but the songs! Strange Fruit. Billie’s Blues.
That purchase was teaching me a lifetime’s worth of things: “black bodies swaying in the southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees: hast the lord seen of the gallant sorrow, the bulging eyes, and the twisted mouths.
I bought it for the ass, for the smut: and got Billie Holliday, and tragedy, and Josh White: “writing especially for her”.
The world is full of great music. So many things contribute: rhythm, melody … lyrics … The Twentieth Century got swept up by syncopation: accents off the beat as well as on the beat. Without more than a little training very few people will be able to sing or play ragtime, marking the syncopation and not losing the beat. Try it, you’ll be humiliated. Rag time, and jazz. Jazz led the syncopation parade: until mid-century, and bossa nova.
Once upon a time I near worshipped Ella Fitzgerald. Well, in the 1980s, having taught myself a little recorder and then acquired a flute, I was listening to favorite singers play favorite songs, and I listened to Tom Jobim song after song, the sheet music right before me. And Ella was improvising. Very nice, but: in every case Jobim’s written syncopations were better, more vital, more core, than Ella’s improvised variations. Then I listed to Astrud Gilberto sing the Jobim songs. My jaw dropeed. She had every note, very beat, every syncopation exactly in the perfect placd where Jobim had written it. Impossibly difficult, and she was there, at eae, perfectly balanced. And I said, this woman is one of the world’s great artists.
Well. True. But. I just returned to listening to This is Bossa Nova, a nice doc with the heroes of the 1950s, Jobim and associates, the guys who put Black Orpheus together: stage and then screen: the movie had me delirious in 1958. So today I’m watching more of it, and Astrud performs. Gasp. But then another dozen fabulous beautiful sex women with wonderful bosoms in red dresses, standing, or perched with a guitar, and I think: it ain’t just Astrud. It ain’t just Jobim. It’s the Portuguese! It’s the samba! It’s the whole bossa thing! Astrud has its genius perfectly, but she’s not the only one.
But: I repeart: notice: Astrud’s perfect syncopation. Perfect. and perfectly sexy.
Astrud was born in 1940. She’s just two yars younger than I am. That is, she’s almost as old as I am. And she married Jaoa Gilberto, he several years older. But then she met Stan Getz: and Stan met all of then: but Stan ran off with Astrud: and who can blame him? Her husband can blame him.
Unbelievable Facts, Stats
Astrud sang two tracks on the Bossa album of 1963: she was partnered with her husband, with Tom Jobim, with Stan Getz: did it, she had never sung professionally before!!
And one of the songs is Girl from Ipanema! sold over a million, gold record fist try.
Since then The Girl from Ipanema has been recorded over 400 times! She recorded it several times, including with Frank Sinatra!
I heard something bad about her a couple of decades ago: there was a retinred dentist playing keyboard around Highlands Couney, he had had a practice in New Jersey. Astrud came to him in Jew Jersey, sexiest woman of all time, he fixed her teeth: and she stiffed him! Can you imagine? She was making faucets of money, and she stiffed him: according to him.
Tom Jobim is simply an amazing composer, one of the great, great, greatest, difficult to realize how great. A friend pointed out to him that he’d been stuck in second place for a long time as the second most frequently placed composer, the Beatles taking first place. It’s not a fair comparison Jobim objected: don’t forget, there are four of them! That is funny.
Scrap for Scrap
Some of the memories and thoughts I’ve scribbled above may get cut and pasted into other scrapbooks. And some other stuff will get noted here, then dveloped there: flamenco, for example. I spent the day listening to and writing about bossa nova; then last evening I watched Flamenco, Flamenco (2010, TV). Stunning, great marriage of flamenco, stage sets, architecture … painting, color, ensemble this, that, and the other. I plan to watch it again and again. I felt prepared partly because for a few years no I’ve been music-streaming bulerias, Estrella Morente (and family) … flamenco this and that.