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Monday, December 15, 2008

Billie Holiday Sings the Blues

I don’t know why my thoughts turned recently to the vastly talented and tragic Billie Holiday. She was a jazz singer and songwriter who was said to have "changed the art of American pop vocals forever." She influenced many modern vocalists including one of my all-time favorites Barbra Streisand.

“Lady Day,” as she became known, was born in 1915 to her unwed, 13-year-old mom. She was raped at about age 10, later spent eight months in a girls’ reformatory and then, according to Ms. Holiday’s own account, was recruited into a New York City brothel where she worked as a prostitute and spent some time in jail for solicitation.

In the early 1930s she started singing in Harlem nightclubs for tips. According to legend, penniless and facing eviction, Ms. Holiday sang Travelin All Alone in a local club and reduced the audience to tears. Approximately three years later, a talent scout discovered Billie Holiday singing at a jazz club. She soon had a contract and made her recording debut with the Benny Goodman Orchestra. She also performed with the big bands of Count Basie and Artie Shaw where she became the first black vocalist to perform with an all-white band.

Ms. Holiday’s solo career took flight and was marked in 1939 with the recording of Strange Fruit for Commodore Records. Another company had already turned down the song because of the controversial subject matter – Southern lynchings of black men. She was fearful of audience reaction in her first live performance of the song, but it remained in her repetoire for 20 years. It is said that Ms. Holiday continued to be surprised at the numbers of people who did not understand the imagry of the lyrics.

Her use of hard drugs began in the early ‘40s when she was in her mid-20s. That coupled with drinking excesses and relationships with abusive men caused Ms. Holiday’s health to deteriorate as well as inflect a coarsening into her voice. Despite some changes in her voice, it was always her emotion, phrasing and the instrumentality of her voice that continued to provide memorable recordings and performances.

In 1956, Lady Day played to a packed audience at Carnegie Hall, a career coup for any performer and one of note for a black woman in segregationist America. Sadly, she began winding down.

On May 31, 1959 at age 44, Ms. Holiday was taken to Metropolitan Hospital in New York suffering from liver and heart disease. Police officers were stationed at the door to her room, and she was arrested for drug possession as she lay dying. The lady who changed vocal music remained under police guard at the hospital until she died on July 17, 1959.

She had $0.70 in her checking account and $750 in her purse, the remnants of an interview fee. Ms. Holiday had long since been swindled of all her money.

Diana Ross played Ms. Holiday in the 1972 Lady Sings the Blues, a loose adaptation of the Billie Holiday biography. She was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987. The U.S. Postal Service issued a Billie Holiday stamp in 1994.

If you’re not familiar with her, you owe it to yourself to meet Billie Holiday’s work. If you’re an admirer, just sit back and enjoy. The first link below takes you to a must-hear My Man. The second goes to the chilling and powerful Strange Fruit.

1 comment:

Lacy said...

Wow! I didn't know anything about her history. Thank you for enlightening me and all of us!