Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Lady in Autumn

*****

BILLIE HOLIDAY
The Ultimate Collection
Hip-O/Verve

Homing in on the neglected middle period of a true American idol

Billie Hoiday stands at or near the top of any knowledgeable short list of American singers. In the rock era, not even Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley or Al Green is in her class--her only competition is Louis Armstrong, whose improvisational smarts she emulated, and Frank Sinatra, who adored her. Yet Holiday had a much smaller voice than those titans, and by 1959, when she died of alcohol abuse at 44, it was a wreck. Her magic is in her languid timing, conversational intimacy and above all physical timbre--young and buttery or brandy on the rocks, it goes down so easy.

Not even the live performances on the accompanying DVD render these two CDs "ultimate." Holiday can't be contained like that. Columbia's early two-CD Lady Day and the Lester Young-accompanied A Fine Romance are at least as essential, as is Verve's late two-CD Lady in Autumn. For licensing reasons, this overview offers just a taste of the buoyant '30s Billie, already worldly yet set on fun, while doing better by the careworn '50s Billie.

What makes it invaluable is the way it bridges the two periods. Though interrupted by wartime recording bans and a prison stint for heroin, the 1940s found Holiday no longer feigning innocence but still clear-voiced. The strings she invited and the big-band conventions her producer applied can be hard to take in large doses. These tracks are so astutely chosen, though, that their star-time phase seems natural--a strength, even.

Because Holiday destroyed her body and couldn't resist mean mistreaters, she's come to symbolize female victimization. But even in suffering she was vibrant, and this set gets the proportions right. Not all these songs are sad, and she owns every one--a fathomless artist guaranteed to reward as many hours as you invest in her.

Blender, June 2005