Apr 7, 2014
Had she not succumbed from the results of a life lived hard and fast, Billie Holiday would have been 89 years old today. Born Eleanora Faganon April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia, PA, she overcame a childhood marred by neglect and abuse to become one of the seminal singers in American musical history.
By the time she was signed to Brunswick Records in 1935 by the legendary John Hammond to record current pop tunes with pianist Teddy Wilson, it was clear that her talents were immense. It didn’t take long for two of the biggest bands in the land, led by Count Basie and Artie Show to compete for her talents. Within five years she was perhaps the most in-demand singer in America, with a string of hits that became standards, including "What A Little Moonlight Can Do." "Easy Living" and "I'm Gonna Lock My Heart."
She was recording hits for Columbia Records when a dispute with the label sent her to Commodore Records to release “Strange Fruit”, the song about lynching that went on to be her biggest selling and most played hit. The 1939 record was eventually named “The Song of the Century” by Time magazine. A year later, her song “God Bless the Child” would sell over a million copies and be the number 3 song of the year on the Billboard charts.
She was at her popular and creative zenith when a drugs arrest in 1947 began a very public slide, culminating with prison time and the revocation of her New York City Cabaret Card. Holiday’s income rapidly dried up, as she could not play the lucrative city venues, and her records were increasingly out of print. By the 1950s, Holiday's drug abuse, drinking, and relationships with abusive men caused her health to deteriorate, and her voice became raspy.
While she released a number of fine recordings in the Fifties (“Lady Sings the Blues”, Songs for Distingue Lovers, Lady in Satin) and made a memorable appearance on CBS’ television special The Sound of Jazz with old friend Lester Young, it was clear to those around her that her time was nearly up. Suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, in May of 1959 she was arrested for drug possession as she lay dying, and her hospital room was raided. Holiday stayed under police guard until she died from pulmonary edema and heart failure caused by cirrhosis of the liver on July 17, 1959. In her final years, she had been progressively swindled out of her earnings, and she died with less than a dollar in the bank. She was 44 years old.
As with so many legends who died young, the sordid part of her story often eclipses the awesome talent she displayed in recordings and live performances. Her delivery makes her immediately identifiable, and she influenced almost every singer and musician who heard her. In 1958, before her death, Frank Sinatra said, “With few exceptions, every major pop singer in the US during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius. It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me. Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years.”
And her legend lives on. Audra McDonald (pictured) will open on Broadway next week as Billie Holiday in a revival of Lanie Robertson’s play Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill at the Circle in the Square Theatre. Ms. McDonald joins the likes of Dee Dee Bridgewater (who played off-Broadway in Lady Day last year) and Vanessa Rubin (who reprised her regional theater role in Yesterdays – An Evening with Billie Holiday at the National Black Theater in New York last month) as singer/actors who have portrayed the great singer, keeping her legacy alive.
Podcast 421 is a musical tribute to Lady Day, an hour plus collection of many of my (and hopefully your) favorite Billie Holiday songs, including:
"What a Little Moonlight Will Do"
"Mean to Me"
"Can't Help Loving Dat Man"
"God Bless the Child"
"Crazy He Calls Me"
"I Cover the Waterfront"
"Them There Eyes"
"Fine and Mellow"
"Just One of Those Things"
"One For My Baby (and One More for the Road)"