Billie Holiday didn't have a powerful voice, or even much range, and she was frequently saddled, particularly early in her recording career, with songs that had little grit or substance, but she was that rarest of performers, a singer who at her best could bring the whole weight of what it meant to be human to bear on the simplest lyric, transforming it through nuance and phrasing into a cry of almost frightening beauty. This set, drawn from the very start of her studio career, covers 1933 to 1940, stopping just short of what were arguably her peak performances in the mid-'40s. It includes both sides of what is perhaps the most schizophrenic single ever issued, 1939's sparkling and warm "Fine and Mellow" B/W "Strange Fruit," Abel Meeropol's harrowing and poignant song about lynching in the South which in Holiday's hands became a languid, time-stopping catharsis. The whole range of human emotional possibilities is somehow contained in Holiday's treatment of these two songs.
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AllMusic Review by Steve Leggett