FEATURE: The Lady Owns the Blues: Billie Holiday at One-Hundred-and-Four: The Ultimate Playlist




The Lady Owns the Blues


IN THIS PHOTO: Billie Holiday in the early-1950s/PHOTO CREDIT: Hulton Archive/Getty Images 

Billie Holiday at One-Hundred-and-Four: The Ultimate Playlist


IT is tragic that the great Billie Holiday only lived...

 IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

to the age of forty-four. Holiday was diagnosed with cirrhosis in 1959 and battled alcoholism for a lot of her late life. She was in frail health in the last couple of years before she died at the age of forty-four in 1959. She did not record a lot before her death but 1958’s Lady in Satin has some real highlights – including Frank Sinatra, Joel Herron and Jack Wolf’s I’m a Fool to Want You. Holiday’s voice had lost a lot of its higher range and there was an unintended sense of tragedy and loss. 1959’s Last Recording – where Holiday wanted to sound like Frank Sinatra – is rather tragic and sad; Holiday has to be propped up by a nurse at times so she could get through a take. There is a lot of tragedy surrounding Billie Holiday but her impact and legacy cannot be ignored. Holiday’s vocal range was not huge and she did not have a musical education. Like many of the great artists, Holiday’s power came from her unique tones and intuition. Whereas some artists seduced with vocal range and belt, Holiday buckled knees with her intensity and passion. One can read articles relating to Holiday’s best work and fans will have their own opinions. It is a stretch to think, even in good health, Holiday would have lived to the age of one-hundred-and-four! One of my earliest memories of Blues and Jazz music is being played Billie Holiday records such as Lady Sings the Blues and Lady in Satin.

 IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

It is clear that Holiday had her troubles – personal, legal and substance-related – but her vocal prowess and stunning music stands the test of time. This article from The Atlantic in 2015 shows how Holiday’s name lives on and how she has inspired many modern artists:

How many musicians are relevant at 100? Given how quickly styles and sounds change, it's hard to stay current for more than a decade, much less a century. Take Frank Sinatra, who was born in December 1915. Ol' Blue Eyes remains an icon, but Bob Dylan tributes aside, Sinatra sounds, well, old. Louis Armstrong? Still loved by musicians, but mostly known in the general public for his treacly late-career anthem to optimism, "What a Wonderful World."

What accounts for her longevity? For one thing, she's arguably the greatest jazz singer ever. She's certainly the most familiar. Even people who can't tell Ella Fitzgerald from Peggy Lee know that voice, so recognizable and so difficult to describe. And as John Szwed notes in a new book, her myth is also an essential part of her continued appeal. There's her birth to a teenaged, unmarried mother; her rape and work in prostitution before her 14th birthday; her many marriages and entanglements; and her death. Most of all, there's her long battle with heroin, a struggle about which she was unusually open. For many listeners, one suspects, the personal life is inextricable from the professional. The pathos of Holiday's life seems to ooze out between the notes in her voice.

Alternately, some singers have opted to try to reproduce Holiday's sound. That's surprising, given how much importance is attached to Holiday's biography (who can hope to capture that sort of pain?) and given how hard it is to capture what made her so great—the phrasing and musical coloring and nuances. Imitating her strange tone enough to evoke Holiday is easier, and plenty of singers have drawn comparisons to her, from the lite-jazz of early Norah Jones to the twee jazz-pop of Madeleine Peyroux”.

Holiday, as this article shows, broke ground and barriers:

In 1938, Holiday became the first Black woman to work with a White orchestra. One year later, her label, Columbia Records, would refuse her request to record "Strange Fruit," a song about the lynching of a black man.

Major record labels feared losing sales in the South. Holiday recorded "Strange Fruit" with Commodore Records, recognized as America's first independent jazz record label.

In a 2001 New York Times obituary, Commodore's founder, Milton Gabler, was said to have had one photo by his bedside at the time of his death at the Jewish Home and Hospital in Manhattan. It was of Billie Holiday. She had died 42 years before the 90 year old.

Time Magazine called Holiday's haunting ballad the song of the century. It has sold millions of copies.

The late jazz writer Leonard Feather called "Strange Fruit," "the first significant protest in words and music, the first unmuted cry against racism”.

I think the fact her music is still being played and new listeners are discovering her work shows how important her legacy is. It is amazing to think how long Holiday’s music will be played but listen now and it still sounds completely staggering, evocative and spin-tingling. Even if her later material was quite frail and haunting (in a bad way), it did hold its own special power and place. There are many great Billie Holiday recordings but, to mark what would have been her one-hundredth-and-fourth birthday, I have compiled an essential playlist. Take a listen to this sensation icon whose life might have been short but, in the time she was with us, she made such a mark on…                    

THE music world.