Although many of Billie Holiday’s recordings for Commodore and Decca are often overlooked — at least in comparison to the songs that bookend her career (for Columbia and Verve) — they include some of her best work, beginning at the end of the ’30s with “Strange Fruit” and stretching to the end of the ’40s with “God Bless the Child.”
In 1939, Billie Holiday was a jazz sensation without a hit record. She gained that hit record, and began her journey to musical immortality, when her label Columbia refused to record “Strange Fruit,” and jazz fan Milt Gabler welcomed her to his aficionado label, Commodore.
Gabler recorded Holiday often over the next ten years, both at Commodore and through his work at Decca in the mid-to late ’40s. While on Commodore, Holiday focused on downcast ballads, including “I Cover the Waterfront” and “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” (dubbed “loser” songs by Gabler), but she also excelled with warm and affectionate material too, “Embraceable You” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” Regardless of the material, her backing consisted of small groups usually led by a pair of saloon-sound maestros: Doc Cheatham on trumpet and Eddie Heywood on piano.
That sound was in for a switch when Holiday moved to Decca, however, beginning with another big hit, “Lover Man,” a pop ballad with the full crossover treatment — strings and all. (Gabler had no compunction about false notions of purity, and he happily recorded Holiday with strings and backing choruses whenever the song demanded it.) Even more than her work for Commodore, Holiday’s work for Decca was melancholy and resigned in the extreme, with sterling treatments of yet more loser songs: “Don’t Explain,” “Good Morning Heartache,” “You Better Go Now,” and “What Is This Thing Called Love.”
Individually, the songs are excellent, and as a package, The Complete Commodore & Decca Masters can hardly be beat. It’s a splendid accompaniment to similar sets devoted to Billie Holiday’s Columbia and Verve output, and while completists will bemoan the lack of the many alternate takes — most of the Commodore sides have two alternate takes for each master recording, available elsewhere — this is all the war-years Billie Holiday one could hope for.