Taking On the Billie Holiday Catalog

Jazz singer Dianne Reeves is touring with a Billie Holiday tribute show, performing songs first made famous by Lady Day. Part of the challenge: protecting her voice. Reeves recently recorded the soundtrack to the film Goodnight, and Goodluck.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Dianne Reeves is a busy woman. The three-time Grammy Award winner has worked with Clark Terry, Harry Belafonte and Wynton Marsalis, and now we can add George Clooney to that list. She was selected by Mr. Clooney to perform in the film "Good Night and Good Luck" and record 14 songs for the soundtrack. She's now touring in a stage production called "Billie and Me," which originally debuted in London. The show combines live performances, spoken word and reinterpretations of the legendary Billie Holiday. Dianne Reeves joins us now from our studios at Carnegie Hall.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. DIANNE REEVES (Three-time Grammy Award Winner): Oh, thank you. I'm glad to be here.

SIMON: And what attracts you to rerendering, in a sense, Billie Holiday for a new generation?

Ms. REEVES: Well, there are a lot of songs that I've sung over the years that are songs that I was introduced to by, you know, listening to Billie Holiday and wouldn't ever touch them because, you know, you listen to 'em so much you don't want that interpretation to come out of your mouth. You want to be able to have your own unique way of doing it. But everybody has had some affiliation with Billie Holiday and they love her music and her storytelling and her realness.

SIMON: Is it daunting to sing a song that Billie Holiday made famous?

Ms. REEVES: In a show like this, no, because we know who we're paying tribute to, but I can make them my own. But I think for young vocalists, it's kind of hard to get away from the power that she has over us all.

SIMON: What do you do to make it your own interpretation?

Ms. REEVES: You know, the melody and the words are still the same, but the harmonies might change to give it another color, another feeling.

SIMON: We want to listen to something from 2003, Sarah Vaughan tribute album you recorded to kind of get an example of how you take a song that was made famous by someone who's a very distinctive stylist and how you reinterpret it. This is Dianne Reeves' version of "Speak Low."

(Soundbite of "Speak Low")

Ms. REEVES: (Singing) Speak low. When you speak low our summer day withers away too soon, all too soon.

SIMON: Wow. When did you know you had this powerful voice?

Ms. REEVES: I remember one time we had a talent show in junior high school, which is during the time that I decided I wanted to sing, and there were a lot of things going on in school at that time 'cause we were the first students to be bused in Denver, Colorado. So it was, you know, very new for everybody. And it was the first time that I realized that music was that powerful, and here I was standing up there singing a song that I really believed in. And it was touching people, and I thought, `Oo, I want to do this.'

SIMON: What song was that?

Ms. REEVES: It was a song that was actually written by Edwin Hawkins. At the time, Edwin Hawkins Singers had just come out with the album "O Happy Day," and there was a song on that record called "Joy." And we were going through a lot of the things, and one of the lines is `behind every dark cloud there's a silver lining,' and I could really relate to that because of what was going on.

SIMON: You know, I'm afraid I don't know that song. "O Happy Day."

(Sings) `O happy day.'

Ms. REEVES: Yeah.

(Sings) `Happy day.'

Yeah. Yeah. But on that album were a lot of really great songs, so that was one of the ones that I selected. The song was (sings) `Behind every dark cloud, there's a silver lining, and after each and every rainstorm, there's a bright new star. When trouble grieves you, friends deceive you, oh, don't worry, it will pass over by and by.' And I loved it. You know?

SIMON: Ah.

Ms. REEVES: And it said, `Weeping may endure for a night, but joy--joy, joy will come in the morning.' I love that.

SIMON: Ah. Gosh. Well, you've convinced me just sitting here.

Ms. REEVES: Well, you took me back for a minute.

SIMON: Well, that's the--I'm guessing that's the early '70s.

Ms. REEVES: Early '70s--late '60s, early '70s.

SIMON: It's--your voice, in "Good Night, and Good Luck," so beautifully sets the mood, at least what we think of the mood, of the 1950s.

Ms. REEVES: I love that period of singing.

SIMON: Some of the music was recorded, I think, the technical phrase is live on film.

Ms. REEVES: That's correct.

SIMON: Which means what, exactly?

Ms. REEVES: Well, generally, you know, people go in and they'll--they will have already recorded the songs in the studio and then you go to film and then you lip-sync, you know, so that it works really well, but George, you know, which--George Clooney. He's really wonderful...

SIMON: Yeah.

Ms. REEVES: ...and he really, really trusts, you know, my instincts as a jazz singer, and he said, `No, this is going to be live,' and I said, `I've never heard of this before.' He said, `Absolutely.' He said, `It'll be fine. It'll be wonderful.' We--I just want you to sing it live. You know? Just like one of the actors, you know, would say their lines, I want you to sing it, you know, live.' And I thought `Oh, my God, this is great because then it's real.

SIMON: This is the song "Who's Minding the Store?"

(Soundbite of "Who's Minding the Store")

Ms. REEVES: (Singing) My angels on high have broken their wings. The loneliest tears I cry, my heart never sings.

SIMON: Four people wrote it, I gather.

Ms. REEVES: Yes, and I have something that I want to tell you about one of the people who wrote a lot of the lyrics for that song.

SIMON: Yeah.

Ms. REEVES: When they were doing the re-writes and it was suggested--well, we just gave it to this one young lady and said, `You know, see what you think about it.' So this one young lady happens to be 15 years old; her name is Alanna Biden(ph). She's the niece of Senator Biden.

SIMON: How did...

Ms. REEVES: It's never been said before. And I've--this is the first time. Absolutely.

SIMON: Well--how does Joe Biden's niece end up writing song lyrics for Dianne Reeves?

Ms. REEVES: Well, she is the stepdaughter of my manager...

SIMON: Sure.

Ms. REEVES: ...and she's a very intelligent, wonderful young lady.

SIMON: Alanna Biden. Well, we'll mark the word. What kind of music do you listen to now?

Ms. REEVES: The music that I really love to listen to...

SIMON: Yeah?

Ms. REEVES: ...is the music of pots and pans. I love to cook. So--yeah.

SIMON: What do you like to cook?

Ms. REEVES: I'm constantly tasting things and picking up all kinds of different seasonings, and it's kind of like a jazz musician, you know? I taste something and I can duplicate it. I love to cook.

SIMON: May I ask, do you anything in particular to look after your voice?

Ms. REEVES: Yeah, well, one of the biggest things is I moved back home to Denver, which has been really, really great. Because there, when I'm walking, and exercising, really helps to build my lungs, so my stamina is really, really good, more than anything. I still study. I have a wonderful teacher. And when I'm not working with her, I certainly have all the things that she's given me to continue to keep my voice strong.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. REEVES: (Singing) When fortune cries `Nay! Nay!' to me, and people declare you're through, whenever...

SIMON: So nice talking to you.

Ms. REEVES: Thank you very much.

SIMON: Good holidays.

Ms. REEVES: Take care.

SIMON: Dianne Reeves, speaking with us from Carnegie Hall.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. REEVES: (Singing) I concentrate on you, on your smile so sweet, so tender, when at first your kiss I declined. On the light in your eyes when I surrender, and once again our arms intertwine. And so when wisemen say to me that love's young dream never comes true, to prove that even wisemen can be wrong...

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.