Holidays #2

“Winter Wonderland”

This song was written as a poem by Richard (Dick) Smith as he admired the freshly fallen snow in his hometown of Honesdale Pennsylvania. Smith had Tuberculous, but before he succumbed to the disease in 1934 he showed the poem to his friend Felix Bernard who composed the music. The most popular version was the cover by Guy Lombardo which came out just a week after the original (above) on the competing Decca Records. Over the years it has been recorded by just about every major name from the 1930’s through to today’s stars such as Norah Jones and Thomas Rhett. It is the tenth most recorded song of all time with 1560 versions, just ahead of “Over the Rainbow” that currently has 1490 renditions.

There is no mention of Christmas at all in the song but of course it is full of the imagery of freshly fallen snow, sleigh bells and young love. The fictitious Parson Brown becomes a Circus Clown in the more children friendly version.

Here are some of the more popular versions, both Bennett and Love have charted with this song.

Personally I have to go with this swinging version by Ella Fitzgerald but I am sure you have your favorite(s).

References: 1,2,3

Holidays #1

“River”

As I mentioned in my last post to begin my series on Holiday/Christmas Songs I am starting with the more unconventional. Joni Mitchell’s “River” has been adopted as a Seasonal/Christmas song. Mitchell wrote the song with inspiration from her breakup with Graham Nash. Yes, it starts with a little “Jingle Bells” on the piano and references Christmas but not in a celebratory way. It’s essentially about missing someone and wanting to escape or “skate away” from the lonely feelings. There are many such songs that reflect the reality that not everyone is completely happy, just because the calendar shows it’s Christmastime. Those feeling lonely or missing a loved one, or anyone for that matter may find solace in this song. Typical of Joni Mitchell’s work it is deeply personal and at the same time relatable to millions of others in their own private struggles.

The song was not released as a single and is from her 1971 masterpiece Blue. As with many of her songs it went somewhat unnoticed and under appreciated for many years. It was first covered in 1974 by a friend and fellow Folk Singer Dave Van Ronk who was part of the Greenwich Village scene with Mitchell, Dylan, Phil Ochs and others. Mitchell has been quoted as saying his version of “Both Sides Now” is her favorite. It was then covered a few more times and never reached the charts but the first connection to a Christmas theme for the song was a version by Canadian Opera Singer Riki Turofsky where it appeared on her 1994 album A River So Long as it was paired with another non-Christmas song, this time written by Harry Nilsson titled “Remember (Christmas)” from his Son of Schmilsson released in 1972, it has been covered 20 times and it’s first Christmas theme appearance was on a Compilation album Cabaret Noël – A Broadway Cares Christmas in 1993. “Remember / Toyland” by K.T. Sullivan.

However, most of the credit for the connection seems to come from the appearance of “River” on Songs of the Season, a 1997 release by British Jazz guitarist Peter White. The album contained among other songs, “Jingle Bells”, “Silent Night” and “White Christmas”. Next it was on a Christmas Compilation assembled as a freebie insert by the renowned Dutch literary magazine De Gids in 1998. From there on it just grew from more ‘seasonal’ cover versions and appearances on more Christmas Albums, a bit of radio airplay and choirs including it in their Holliday repertoire. You will now hear it from your favorite streaming service when you request “Christmas Songs”.

Ellie Goulding covered this song and her 2019 Youtube release reached #1 on the UK Singles Chart. There are over 300 documented covers and according to secondhandsongs.com she is #14 on the list of of most covered singer songwriters with almost 2400 versions (of all her songs) being recorded. Needless to say that JoniMitchell.com is focused solely on her songs and they list 900 versions making it her second most covered song after “Both Sides Now” with 1573 covers.

It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh, I wish I had a river
I could skate away on …

References: 1, 2, 3, 4,

Holiday #6

“I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”

As I “wrap up” my miniseries on Billie Holiday I will finish with the only song she recorded that is associated with Christmas. That is to say it is not a Christmas song at all, however since it’s debut in the Musical, On the Avenue in 1937 the song has snuggled it’s way onto Christmas Albums by many an artist. It was first performed in the movie by Dick Powell and Alice Faye, the first record was by Ray Noble, which was released January 27, 1937 so chronologically it came out before the February 4, movie debut.

Billie was one of at least 10 artists to cover this song in it’s first year of release, and her version is often mentioned when referring to the more memorable renditions of the song. Written by Irving Berlin, the lyrics reference, wind, snow, cold, icicles and the month of December. At the time it was being recorded by Billie and many others it was a song about love and warmth, not a Holiday or Christmas song.

Here is a clip from the movie.

I am sure many of us are having our fill of Holiday and Christmas songs and for many December 26 brings some welcome relief in more ways than one. However tis’ the Season and so I thought to kick off my contribution I would give a little background on some of the songs such as this one that were not purpose designed. Many of the songs around Christmas and the Holidays have some interesting origins. For more on that story you can check out my upcoming Holidays #1 post.

If you have read some of my past posts you know how I love to connect the dots. I will leave you an interesting link between “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” and Christmas Songs.

First, here is the legendary Jazz Guitarist Django Reinhardt and his oft partner the equally legendary Jazz Violinist Stéphane Grappelli with their instrumental version from 1938.

Again from 1938 we have Reinhardt but this time featuring the Violin stylings of the amazing Michel Warlop with “Christmas Swing”. In this case…perhaps all roads lead to Reinhardt.

references: 1, 2, 3,

Holiday #5

Lady Sings the Blues

This is the song that many will first associate with Billie Holiday. Written with Jazz pianist and band leader Herbie Nichols it was recorded in sessions from August of 1955 but released in 1956 on the five track album of the same name. This is also the title of a biopic that came out in 1972 with the legend Diana Ross playing Holiday. The movie did not receive the greatest of reviews and is loosely based on Holiday’s autobiography which has the same title as well if you’re sensing a theme here – but as often the case with these films, it’s not very factually accurate. However it is quite enjoyable from my standpoint and well worth watching just to see Ross perform the songs.

Billie herself would record over 200 cover songs and many memorable versions from The American Songbook/American Standards. Of her 40 original songs, “Lady Sing the Blues” has not been covered as often and coincidentally there are currently 40 versions. The first one appeared in a medley by Susan Carter in 1970. This next clip is from one of the many tribute albums to Billie Holiday, interestingly it so happens to have been assembled by the versatile actor Peter Stormare. As I understand the story, Peter, who has his own record label named Stormvox was grieving the death of Jimi Hendrix back in 1970 and his mother gave him a Billie Holiday album which helped him to the point of him promising his mother he would do a tribute album.

Rocco DeLuca sings here, more recently he has been working with legendary producer/musician Daniel Lanois.

This is the instrumental track from the co-writer Herbie Nichols and it was released at about the same time as the vocal track in 1956.

References: 1, 2, 3,

Holiday #4

“Don’t Explain”

Written by Billie Holiday and as she did on most of her songs collaborated with Arthur Herzog. The lyrics are deeply personal, coming from her knowledge that her husband Jimmy Monroe was sleeping with other women. Always delivered with that haunting intensity this song has inspired 260 versions to date. It was recorded in 1945 and released in June of 1946. It would be the last song she wrote.

There are so many remarkable covers of this song that it was impossible for me to choose just one to post. However, Nina Simone is where I often land, I don’t think I have to “explain” that…

This song has dozens of instrumentals, once again there are so many versions from artists on my favorites list.

You may recognize the name Don Shirley if you watched The Green Book, here he plays a medley of her songs including “Don’t Explain” and is accompanied by bassist Ken Fricker and cellist Juri Taht.

I will provide a couple of links at the end to other covers but as I said it was so hard to chose; here are the sublime Chet Baker from his tribute album, Bakers Holiday (1965) and Saxophone great Dexter Gordon from 1964.

More links: Herbie Hancock feat. Lisa Hannigan and Damien Rice, Beth Hart and Joe Bonamassa, Grover Washington Jr. and the always amazing Molly Johnson.

Holiday #3

“God Bless The Child”

When I write about cover songs, I like to look and talk about numbers. As we all know there are many ways to look at statistics. My major source is Secondhandsongs.com. For example there are categories such as the most covered songs by title, there is the most covered singer songwriters and the most covered authors (lyricists and composers). There is also a category for the most covered performers, which does not take into account who wrote the song, just who sang it. As many of these lists are, it is dominated by male performers, The Beatles being at the top. The first female is Judy Garland at #11 and the next is Billie Holiday at #23.

As an author of songs Billie may not rank as high on the lists but for writing her own songs Holliday is best known for “God Bless the Child” (co-written with her oft collaborator Arthur Herzog Jr.) from 1939, first recorded in 1941. There are over 500 versions of this remarkable song. In her autobiography Billie said the inspiration for the song came from an argument with her mother over money. Billie had said to her “God Bless the Child that got his own”. The lyrics start with a reference to the Book of Matthew from the New Testament. She took the draft lyrics to Arthur Herzog and they fleshed out the rest of the song.

Cover by Dee Dee Bridgewater (2010).

Andra Day won a Golden Globe for her portrayal in the 2021 biopic The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Long before she got the role Cassandra Monique Batie, had taken the stage name as an homage to Billie Holiday who’s’ nickname was Lady Day. Billie gave the nickname “Prez” to Saxophone player and longtime friend Lester Young, in return he called her Lady Day.

Holiday #2

“I’ll Be Seeing You”

Billie Holiday is most certainly not alone in having challenging life experiences, but from an early age she was forced to look after herself and learn how to survive. Singers and songwriters will often say that pain, suffering and broken hearts can make for the best songs. Billie was able to channel her feelings and emotions into her singing, again not a unique quality but few did it as well and it’s one of the reasons she is set apart from others. From the serious topics to the more lighthearted where she delivered some of the most vivacious performances you will ever see, such as her interpretations of classic Blues and American Standards not mention the songs she wrote/co-wrote.

No matter how hard I try I will never understand how difficult her life was, not only as a child but especially as a Black woman trying to make a living as a singer. From what I have read, being a person of the times and culture in 1930’s and beyond, even as her career developed into Superstardom, she was often forced to do as she was told. As much as she railed against it, many times she just had no choice. While it varied from place to place she would encounter things such as entering through the delivery or service door, as Blacks were not allowed to use the front door. At some places Blacks could not even be a guest in the audience, even if they were performing at the venue. Perhaps it was not being able to find a hotel that accepted Blacks, or being refused service in restaurants. But when she was in front of the microphone she channelled her energy and gave her heart and soul. Her life cut short by illnesses brought on by her addictions and she died at age 44. Billie was not a Rock and Roll singer but on July 17, 1959 it was another “day the music died”.

For me one of her many enduring songs is “I’ll Be Seeing You” that she recorded in 1944. Written by the great composer Sammy Fain (“Love is a Many Splendored Thing”) and the fine lyricist Irving Kahal. The song, including many instrumentals has been recorded over 500 times. It was first performed by Tamara (Drasin) a Ukrainian born singer who was one of the leading actors on Broadway until her tragic death in a plane crash while on her way to entertain troops during WWII. Bing Crosby hit #1 also in 1944 and the song had charted for Frank Sinatra in 1940. From an article in Ebony Magazine in 1958 Sinatra cites Billie Holiday or Lady Day as she was often referred, as his “greatest single musical influence” and that she was “unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years”.

Thi song did not chart for Billie and her version is perhaps overlooked. However, evn as there are truly many lovely renditions of this beautiful song, as she was so often able to do, when you hear her sing you forget that anyone else had done it before or since.

The first recording was by Dick Todd with Orchestra in 1940

From his 2019 album, Joe Pesci…still singing

Thanks for reading.

Holiday #1

As promised I am posting a series on Billie Holiday.

There have been other names but you can connect the dots of important women in Blues and Jazz music with Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Most of my readers will know about Holiday but since this is the first in a short series I will give you this link to her bio from BillieHoliday.com.

From Wikipedia I gathered a few things everyone should know about her. She was born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia, and to say she overcame horrendous circumstances is and understatement. She was abandoned by her father (believed to be Clarence Halliday) and then passed around by her mother to live among relatives throughout her early life. By the time she was 12 she had been sexually assaulted and was running errands for money at a brothel or scrubbing floors. She re-joined her mother who had left for Harlem by 1929. She began singing in nightclubs as a young teen and her first recordings, with the help of John Hammond were in 1933 at age 18. From there she would work with the leading names in Jazz and Blues including Count Basie and Artie Shaw.

She would rise to the highest height of success and not unlike many in the business she had her issues with alcohol and drug abuse. No doubt a combination of past trauma and getting caught up in the fast life of an entertainer she would struggle with addiction the rest of her life. At a pivotal point in her career she came to the attention of the FBI. This would lead to her incarceration on a drug charge. The song that brought her great success but also got her labeled a subversive or worse was “Strange Fruit”. From her first live performance in 1939 the evocative song about lynching and racism in the South would always stun the audience and serve as an education to many. Her insistence on recording it and continuing to sing it despite the warnings was likely the reason she came to the attention of law enforcement in the first place. Anyone singing protest songs and in this case about racism or lynching, in the late 1930’s and 1940’s attracted unwanted attention from authorities. Particularity for an outspoken Black woman.

Strange Fruit” is a courageous recording by the legendary Billie Holiday from 1939. This song makes an appearance on my “25 of the Greatest Cover Songs #51-75” post. It is from a poem by another brave soul, Lewis Allan (Abel Meeropol) as a protest against racism and lynchings in the American South. He put the poem to a tune and his wife and others sang it at protest rallies. The lyrics are dark and disturbing. Eventually the song made its way to Holiday who first added it to close her Nightclub act. It was only recorded after her efforts to find a label willing to do it. Her delivery is haunting and deeply emotional. Covered over 100 times. Here is  Nina Simone  with an equally amazing version from 1965.

You can find my post on Nina Simone from 2019 here.

Buddy Holly Part 2

Buddy is best remembered for his original songs, and he wrote or co-wrote most of them himself. His first single was under his new contract with Decca (1956) is “Love Me” that he co-wrote with Sue Parish from Lubbock, Texas. It was the A side of the first of two records released by Decca after those initial sessions in Nashville. On the B side was “Blue Days – Black Nights” written by Ben Hall, also from Lubbock. The other record had “Modern Don Juan” on the A side that was written by a longtime friend of Buddy and his family, Don Guess. Don’s (The Guest) Sisters recorded with Norman Petty in Clovis in the 1940’s and this provides the link to Buddy working with Petty after he left Decca. The B side was “That’s My One Desire” that was also written by Don Guess.

As we known there was a disconnect with Decca right from the beginning, they wanted a Country Singer, and Buddy wanted to do Rock and Roll. For his first recordings in Nashville, he had taken Sonny Curtis to play lead guitar, and Don Guess to play the bass. He left his friend and drummer Jerry Allison in Lubbock and Nikki Sullivan stayed in school. At that time in Nashville, Country & Western Music very rarely used drums and they did not really even know how to record them. They were banned from The Grand Ole Opry stage for many years. In the 1950’s much of the Country Music world worried that with drums it would start to sound like Rock and Roll. So Buddy could not get the sound he wanted and Decca put no effort in promoting him.

I know I posted this song recently but it was not until he worked with Norman Petty that the real Buddy Holly was heard. On “That’ll Be The Day” it was just Buddy with his jangly lead guitar, Jerry Allison on drums and from the first recording, replacing Joe Mauldin on bass it was Larry Welborn (who had also played on past Holly recordings). Nikki Sullivan (one of Buddy’s bass players) provided background vocals only, along with June Clark, Gary Tollett and Ramona Tollett. The resulting and much better version was released on Brunswick in May of 1957. This became his breakout single. It reached #1 on Billboard (this was pre-Hot 100), it went to #2 on the R&B Chart and was #1 in the UK. It was his only #1 in the US.

As I have mentioned, there are movie portrayals and many have seen some of the great theatrical performances, also the books and other tributes to Buddy Holly. There was a Tribute album “Rave On” released in 2011 that was unfortunately a critical failure with some less than stellar efforts from some respected artists. There is one standout version from My Morning Jacket on “True Love Ways“. Then there is the namesake band called The Hollies. Elvis Costello’s look was not a mistake either. As I mentioned in Part 1 and many have said, the course of (what we think of as the original) Rock and Roll changed as a result of that plane crash. I believe it was a key part of the decline of the genre but there were many other events in and around the same time that had an impact. For more on that story you can read my post, When did Rock Drop the Roll. I think the biggest loss with Holly was the direction he was moving with his music.

Buddy never thought Rock and Roll would last much longer, at least not at its current pace of the late 1950’s so he turned his focus to other styles and types of music. The move to New York was due to his desire to focus more on writing and publishing. This led to a split with The Crickets who were for the record, drummer Jerry Allison, bassist Joe B. Mauldin, and rhythm guitarist Niki Sullivan. They would form the band that toured with Buddy in 1957. If you are following with the names I have mentioned on recordings, the three were rarely together in studio.

After the move, Buddy had a bit of a cash flow problem, for reasons I won’t go into now but this led to his decision to join the Winter Dance Party tour. He put together a new band with fellow Texan Waylon Jennings, a guy Buddy had been grooming for stage performances (lead Guitar) and another Texan Carl Bunch (drums) along with Tommy Allsup (Guitar) who had also been playing in Texas. There are many accounts surrounding the events of that fateful tour. I will try and present the rest of the story as I understand it and wrap up with Buddy Holly Part 3.

Thanks to the band Weezer and this retro themed song and video from 1994 it gave many younger listeners a look back in time and perhaps some discovered the amazing Buddy Holly collection. Not to mention Mary Tyler Moore! BTW and I am sure this is no coincidence on the part of Weezer, the theme song for The Mary Tyler Moore tv show was written and sung by Buddy’s friend Sonny Curtis.

I hope you continue to enjoy my blog and as always, thanks for reading!

References: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15,