It’s the time of year for saving money!
By Mark Smotroff
A trio of reissues of fine albums by legendary singer/musicians from the 1950s and 60s have made their way onto store shelves as part of Verve Records’ “Acoustic Sounds” and “By Request” reissue series. I have been listening to these seminal recordings by Billie Holiday, Nina Simone and Blossom Dearie to try to offer you insights into whether you might want them into your collection.
The excellent Acoustic Sounds reissue series from Universal Music and their Verve Records imprint continue to impress vintage vinyl collectors like myself. The more recent and somewhat more affordable “Verve By Request” series (manufactured by Third Man), is also offering choice titles and value which might be worthy of your consideration depending on your needs.
All of these recordings are reportedly remastered from original tapes and in the the case of the Acoustic Sounds series — supervised by Chad Kassem — are pressed at Quality Record Pressing on 180 gram vinyl with lacquers mastered and cut by Ryan Smith at Sterling Sound.
All of the albums I have listened to have been pressed on thick, dark and quiet vinyl that is well centered, so those key stats check out for me. And the recordings seem to sound from very good to excellent based on the condition of the original tapes, and how new lacquers were cut.
All three of these albums are long out of print and still in demand, and some of them can be difficult to find in good condition for original pressings. The new covers are typically outstanding for the Acoustic Sounds series, featuring expanded, laminated gatefold covers and high-quality plastic lined inner sleeves.
Here’s a rundown of how they stack up:
Billie Holiday, Songs for Distingué Lovers
(Verve Acoustic Sounds / Universal Music)
Songs for Distingué Lovers is sublime Billie Holiday in all her mature, world-weary, seen-it-all late career beauty. It features some of the greatest jazz musicians of the era including Ben Webster on tenor sax, Barney Kessel on guitar, Jimmy Rowles on piano and Alvin Stoller on drums. The material covered here is all standards from the likes of Gershwin, Cole Porter and Rodgers & Hart. Some pretty solid musical DNA at the root of this recording, for sure.
Songs for Distingué Lovers has long been on my want list as I’ve been trying to complete my Billie Holiday vinyl collection. One of her late career gems recorded in 1957 and released in 1958, at the time of this writing there were only three original pressings available on Discogs in condition ranging from “Good-plus” for $35 to the lone “near mint” copy asking $215! And all three of those are in Mono. A recent Stereo edition that has shown up on Popsike appeared in the spring of 2021 for $75.
The point of this is to underscore that Songs for Distingué Lovers is not a common record to find in its original form in any condition. And the Stereo versions are especially elusive (remember, Stereo was brand new and just introduced to the public in 1958 so they weren’t necessarily big sellers at the time).
To that, obtaining the new Verve Acoustic Sounds reissue is logical for Billie Holiday fans seeking as near definitive a copy of the record as possible without breaking the bank. Note that there was a 45 RPM 2LP version issued in 2012, now selling on Discogs from between $90 to nearly $350!). With a suggested price of $38.99, this new version more affordably re-creates the original Stereo edition and it generally sounds quite beautiful.
There was a tiny quickly passing moment of distortion recurring in the same spot on my copy “A Foggy Day” but I am hoping that is a one-off pressing anomaly unique to my copy — it was not enough of a deal breaker for me to seek a replacement. Overall, this recording sounds quite wonderful with a lovely analog warmth and and immediacy which belies the fact that it was recorded 66 years ago and not yesterday.
Nina Simone: Wild Is The Wind
(Verve Acoustic Sounds / Universal Music)
Wild Is The Wind by Nina Simone is one of numerous in-demand and hard to find vintage 1960s titles by this legendary and difficult to categorize pianist, singer and songwriter. Her music traverses jazz, blues, gospel, soul, pop, classical and more so she’s hard to peg a label on (that is a good thing, mind you!).
When you do find Nina’s records out in the wilds of collecting, they are typically pretty well loved, with plenty of visual signs of active play — scuffs to scratches — and worn, often broken covers to match. Originally issued on Phillips Records, the covers on vintage pressings of this album were of a single pocket design and not laminated, so they didn’t always wear well in the average consumer’s collection.
Finding a nice condition original copy of Wild Is The Wind is thus not especially easy. I’m grateful I was able to score a near mint original (still in the original shrink wrap!) many years back (I think at an estate sale).
Last I checked on Discogs, there were three original 1966 pressings of this album ranging in price from $61 to $124 for a “Very Good-plus” edition. Rare white label promos are going for high prices as well. So the $39 odd dollars for this fine Verve Acoustic Sounds reissue is very fair considering how this edition was created.
These Acoustic Sounds vinyl reissues are generally crafted at a very high level that surpasses the originals in many ways. Indeed, the new edition is a gatefold design with expanded photography on the inside. And while the album is on Verve Records and not Phillips, the producers did reproduce the look and feel of the original Phillips labels (sans the original logo), so it’s pretty close to what that physical-visual experience would’ve been back in the day.
Ultimately, it comes down to the music and there are plenty of wonderful tunes on this which are at times rocking, bluesy and even haunting. Its album that defies categorization, in many ways.
Listening to the new Acoustic Sounds version after a refresher listen to my “OG” copy, the high end seems a wee bit brighter, which makes sense given it was probably not compressed much compared to the 1966 edition. Yet the music also feels more round and full in the mids and lower end. The sound on the original recording is a little on the thin side to begin with, so do go into this album with realistic expectations.
There is a greater sense of studio presence and instrumental clarity on this new version. For example, on “Four Women” (Side 1, Track 2), the gentle clacking percussion sound appears more resonant.
One of the stand outs (at least for me!) on Wild Is The Wind has always been “Lilac Wine,” a song which many of us first heard as interpreted by the late great artist Jeff Buckley (who was a big fan of Nina’s music). Its really neat to hear the resonance of the bass as the semi-muted strings are gently plucked. This is another one of those instances where the pristine quiet sound floor really helps to reveal more of the music
So if you love Jeff’s version you owe it to yourself to hear her version so you can connect-the-dots musically..
(Verve By Request / Universal Music)
I am still on the fence as to whether I will become a deep fan of Blossom Dearie, but I can’t deny that she has enjoyed a groundswell of fans who have been increasingly vocal about her her brilliance. I’m somewhat late to the game on Ms. Dearie’s music, my decision to explore her music over the past seven or so years was inspired by no less than Elton John — who revealed in his Million Dollar Piano concert I saw in Las Vegas that his special multi-media computer was named “Blossom” in honor of Ms. Dearie! I figured if Sir Elton is that big a fan I needed to dig down deep and find out what she was all about.
I have enjoyed Ms. Dearie’s records which I’ve picked up randomly along the way as I find them in the wilds, including some original 1950s-era recordings on Verve Records and some later ones. She’s an acquired taste for sure, an understated pianist and singer who is more revered for her vocal phrasing and arrangements.
I’ve had a CD of this first Blossom Dearie recording for many years now as the album is very elusive to find on vintage vinyl. I have yet to find 1957-era pressing of this first album out in the wilds of collecting — in fact, I don’t remember ever seeing a copy even in collectors shops. Last I checked there was only one original mono copy available on Discogs and the seller was asking $150 even though it was only in “Good-plus” condition. On Popsike, this year thus far there has been just one original copy appearing which sold for $70. Prior to that some originals sold in 2022 for between $100 and $434!
This new Third Man pressed edition was preceded by a Vinyl Me Please edition in 2022 (which you can find online going for between $40 and $60). There are also some dubious gray market versions of the album selling for a surprising amount.
So, clearly there was a need for an affordable copy of the album. Sporting a standard single pocket cover design, this new Verve By Request edition retails for less than $30, which feels fair. The copy I received for review reproduces the Verve Records logo on the label and the pressing quality is actually quite good (sorry, Third Man haters).
But the sound, while pretty good taken on its own, gave me a little pause when I compared it to a 96 kHz, 24-bit stream on Qobuz. This pressing was mastered quietly so it opens up more when you pump up the volume on your amp, but its still not very tight sounding comparatively. The vinyl feels a bit reigned in dynamics-wise. And, I did hear some sibilance on certain tracks on the vinyl version which was not apparent on the stream. So if you are looking for a more audiophile presentation of your early Blossom Dearie music, keep that in mind when considering this particular reissue.
[Mark Smotroff has been reviewing music at AudiophileReview for many years but can also be found at AnalogPlanet.com. In the past he has written for Sound & Vision, DISCoveries, EQ, Mix and many more. An avid vinyl collector and music enthusiast who has also worked in marketing communications for decades you can learn more about his background at LinkedIn.]