Billie and Dinah on a Wet Sunday Afternoon

I am fascinated by the way different artists approach the same song. This afternoon I have been listening to both Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington’s interpretations of I’m a Fool to Want You. They are both great versions – both women are such extraordinary singers – but incredibly different in feel and impact. I love them both.

Billie Holiday’s version is particularly moving. It is a later recording when the ravages of her addictions can so obviously be heard in her voice. I first got into Billie Holiday in my late teens and at that time preferred the earlier stuff before her voice became so ragged. However, as I have gotten older, I have come to appreciate more and more the beauty of her voice, even at that later stage. Her I’m a Fool to Want You is deeply poignant and the broken quality only adds to the emotional depth of her rendition. The pain and longing are so clearly felt. Her phrasing is unique – many have copied her but I think it is her emotional truth that rings through in everything she does and this is much harder to mimic because it comes from a soul-deep place inside her.

The subject matter of many of her songs can be uncomfortable; I remember hearing Don’t Explain for the first time and wanting to scream ‘DUMP HIM!!’. Her songs relate much to the personal troubles she encountered in her own life, choosing men who enabled her addictions and treated her horribly. Love for Billie – in song and life – was painfully self-destructive. She sings of unfulfilled longing, of putting up with far more than she should. As frustrating as this might be to the listener, no one quite expresses the feelings of finding oneself in that awful place (let’s face it, we have all been there!) as poignantly as she does. It’s a heart-breakingly vulnerable voice but I think that there is something incredibly brave about bearing ones soul in this way; the honesty of her art really touches me. It is clear that she knows what she is singing about; in connecting to her own pain and channeling that through her art, she gives the listener the opportunity to move through their own hurt. It’s a gift that not many possess; this truthfulness of self-expression – whether it be joy or pain – is for me, the stamp of all truly great artists.

The arrangement on I’m a Fool… is gorgeous – wonderful strings that contrast Dinah Washington’s version which has a beautifully arranged horn section. Dinah is far gutsier as a singer. There is a defiance and strength in her voice, even when she is expressing defeat or hopelessness in love. She is another master of phrasing and it is obvious from her early recordings that she was a great fan of Billie Holiday. Her voice rings beautifully on I’m a Fool to Want You – I find it such a thrilling sound. It is fascinating how each woman’s character shapes the song; taking the same lyric and melody but making it uniquely their own. This is of course what makes a singer special – when something is expressed from the heart and soul; when the voice rings true, we truly listen.

If you find yourselves with not much to do, go check out these wonderful tracks – today they have been the perfect soundtrack to the endless rain!

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