Complex and controversial were Miss Holiday's final recordings. The last 18 months of her life included sessions with bandleader Ray Ellis and His Orchestra that resulted in Lady In Satin (recorded February 19-21, 1958, released on Columbia CK 40247) and Billie Holiday (The Final Recording, recorded March 3-11. 1959, released on Verve 835370-2). Billie Holiday died on July 17, 1959. Ellis' recollections conveyed frustration with an increasingly unreliable artist and dissatisfaction with the results of his collaboration with Miss Holiday. The former of these recordings has been written about since the day of its release, the latter, not so much. Billie Holiday considered Lady In Satin her favorite recording. Critics have spilled oceans of opinions on the ground regarding the singer's desiccated voice and the courage with which she used it. The voice that finally emerges from Lady In Satin and Billie Holiday is the one that is perhaps best known to today's mass culture in the form of caricature and parody. That is both appropriate and unfortunate.
The voice on Billie Holiday in March 1959 is not the same voice as that on "Strange Fruit in the '30s. Miss Holiday's voice grew deeper and more course, a manifestation of a lifetime of smoking and drinking. The singer's swing and time is as impeccable and unique as it had ever been. Billie Holiday sang all around the beat, a characteristic that made her at once identifiable. This is well illustrated on "You Took Advantage of Me. Miss Holiday does a vocal dance, sometimes lazy, sometimes urgent. Languid and sensual best describes her delivery.
Ray Ellis assembles a group of fine accompanists in Harry "Sweets Edison, Hank Jones, Al Cohn, Kenny Burrell and Milt Hinton. Ellis' arrangements may be considered quaint and outdated by today's standards, but that is more of a reflection of the modern anemia of taste than poor writing. One need only spin "There'll Be Some Changes Made and "Baby, Won't You Please Come Home to hear through any criticism.
Unlike the similarly self-destructive Chet Baker, who swam downstream all of his life, never giving a shit about art, Billie Holiday always took her performances seriously and all things considered remained in acceptable form until the end. Her final recording reflects this. With Billie casts the singer at the end of her life in the light of fierce courage and endurance, no voice left, only effort and spirit. Billie Holiday is the legacy of this.