Etta James' Tribute to Billie Holiday Is a Masterpiece

By Pick, Steve | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), May 13, 1994 | Go to article overview

Etta James' Tribute to Billie Holiday Is a Masterpiece


Pick, Steve, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


ONCE UPON A TIME in the world of American popular music, songs were more celebrated than singers. Not that the artistry of a vocalist wasn't important, but the real icons of the first half of this century, outside of jazz, blues and country, were songwriters who didn't even record their own music.

This is the most fundamental difference between then and now. Before the Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones came along to convince people otherwise, a recording artist was not expected to write songs. The art of interpretation was what really mattered.

The finest songwriters - Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, etc. - cranked out hundreds of melodic gems, the best of which were then elevated to the role of standards. Any singer worth her or his salt was expected to tackle these songs.

I'm not saying it was a bad thing when artists' writing their own music became all the rage. Obviously, that's led to many, if not most, of my favorite records. But I am sick of hearing people complain about musicians who don't play original material, as if there was something less than noble about stamping one's imprint on a song from another source.

There is general agreement that Billie Holiday was one of the finest pop singers of this century. She occasionally dabbled in composition, but her strength was as an interpreter. Even though she rarely sang a song that was not also recorded by several other singers, she had such a strong personality that her versions would frequently become the standard.

During the last few years of Holiday's life, music was undergoing some serious revolutions. While she kept on cranking out exquisite takes on the mainstream pop numbers of her time, jazz was pushing its way past bebop, rhythm and blues was getting wilder and wilder, and rock 'n' roll was being born. A young woman named Etta James began her recording career in the mid-'50s, and she quickly became associated with some of the wildest and raunchiest music of the time. For the next 40 years, James stuck to her R&B guns, producing some of the most aggressively sexual records of our time.

It turns out that James was a mighty big fan of Holiday, and that she grew up listening to music far subtler than what she started out recording. …

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