Prior to the 1950s, Billie Holiday recorded primarily singles. From 1952 until her death at the age of 44 in 1959, Lady Day recorded ten studio albums and three live albums, primarily for the Verve label (and its Clef subsidiary). She recorded her final album, 1958’s Lady in Satin, for Columbia.

This last period of her life was marked by a lot of personal strife, including abusive relationships, as well as heroin addiction, but even on that final album, she’s well in control of her talents, though her voice had lost a lot of its range.

The thing to remember about these albums is that, unlike her earlier work, these are their own set pieces, not standalone singles, or collections of singles. Of course, this isn’t true only of Billie’s work – it’s the nature of the music business in general in the 1950s– with the advent of LPs, artists, label, and producers began to conceive of pieces listeners would enjoy at a sitting, generally in front of a large console hi-fi system.

By this period, the recording art had become such that the instrumental solos get as much attention as Holiday’s vocals. I don’t think in recording she was ever less than generous with the people who played with her, but on these late albums the band members all get a chance to shine.

1952    Billie Holiday Sings / Recorded: March 26, 1952 (Clef)

This eight-song 10” (extended to 12 and renamed Solitude for the 12” 1956 rerelease) maintains a mostly upbeat take on love with gently swinging arrangements. On the one hand, producer Norman Granz keeps the instrumentation light and Billie’s voice to the front. On the other, her interplay with the musicians, notably Charlie Shaver’s muted trumpet on Solitude and Oscar Peterson’s piano on Blue Moon, highlight how well she used her voice as an instrument in much the way Ella and Sarah Vaughan did. I recall hearing her version I Only Have Eyes For You sometime in the 90s and falling in love with it. I was already familiar with a lot of her work, but only knew the slower 1959 version by the Flamingos.

1953    An Evening with BilliImagee Holiday / Recorded: April 1, 1952 & July 27, 1952 (Clef)

This is an altogether more down affair than Billie Holiday Sings. Stormy Weather sets the tone – this is a collection of lost love and love on the rocks songs. While My Man, He’s Funny That Way, and Tenderly address love as a good thing, the tempo and timing are as sad as those on opener Stormy Weather. On the other side of the coin, closer Remember addresses a lover who has strayed, but with a much happier the tempo. This track also features a pair of really nice solos from Peterson and Barney Kessel. (At the time Kessel and bassist Ray Brown rounded out the Oscar Peterson Trio, though Kessel only stayed a year.)

1954    Billie Holiday / Recorded: April 1, 1952 & April 14, 1954 (Clef)

As you can see all three of these albums came out of sessions that occurred in a four month period, and with many of the same players on all sessions. That said, the musicians are all at the top of the game. The playlist has all eight tracks because they weren’t obviously available on Spotify in sequence. Listen, in particular to Everything I Have Is Yours. Billie and tenor man Flip Philips are engaging in a sweet dialogue. As with the first two sets, the songs strike a melancholy balance between love and lost love. The closing tracks, however, positively swing. What a Little Moonlight Can Do features another fantastic solo from Peterson and some sweet trumpet work from Charlie Shavers while I Cried For You, a defiant kiss-off to a faithless lover is notable for its building intensity.

1955    Stay with Me / Recorded: February 14, 1955 (Verve)

This seven-song result of a single recording session with Tony Scott’s orchestra and features on side A a couple of longer pieces (each well over six minutes) sandwiching a modern take on Fats Waller’s 1929 hit Ain’t Misbehavin’. (I’ve added a Waller rendition to the playlist as well, for a contrast.) These are strange recordings in that the solos really stretch out. Everything Happens To Me, with its line “I’m just a girl who never looks before she jumps” has the not quite defeated feeling of the classic recordings of Good Morning Heartache and Travelin’ Light off Lady Sings The Blues recorded the following year. The sequencing of the album reflects that of Billie Holiday, with two swingers on side B, I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm and Irving Berlin’s Always, though it closes with a thoughtful rendition of Ellington’s Do Nothing ‘Til You Hear From Me.