This article appears in our May/June 2015 “Blues Issue.”
“Lady Sings The Blues” wasn’t only the title of one of Billie Holiday’s most memorable songs, but also her autobiography and the 1977 movie biopic that earned Diana Ross a Best Actress Oscar nomination. However, perhaps a more accurate name would have been “Lady Lived The Blues,” since Holiday’s notoriously turbulent life was infused in her impassioned, often mesmerizing singing.
Her grueling story includes being shuffled between relatives as a young child, an attempted rape at 11, turning to prostitution at 12, reform schools, a never-ending stream of abusive boyfriends and husbands, police harassment and, of course, alcohol and heroin addiction. It makes her success all the more unlikely.
Born in 1915, Holiday also had to contend with a racist society that wouldn’t allow her to sit on the bandstand with her white backing musicians and forced her to enter clubs through the kitchen. Additionally, as a woman she was routinely signed to rip-off contracts that negated most of the royalties on her records. Many of those such as “God Bless The Child,” “Good Morning Heartache” and the gripping “Strange Fruit” have become blues/jazz standards recorded dozens of times. At one point Holiday was one of the best paid jazz singers of her era, but she died broke and beaten from an existence few could have survived, let alone risen above, at the age of 44.
Discovered singing in a Harlem club at the age of 18 by the legendary John Hammond (who famously also signed Dylan, Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughan), Holiday typically had the support of some of the best musicians of her time. Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Gene Krupa, Count Basie and Duke Ellington are just some of the renowned names that crop up in her discography. But touring the South with Artie Shaw, reportedly the first black woman to be hired as a full time employee by a white bandleader, was where Holiday got a bitter taste of Jim Crow country.
It was that disturbing experience that led to the recording of arguably her most harrowing, and strangely most popular, song, “Strange Fruit.” The lyrics of the tune – which started as a poem – were written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx, as a protest against black lynchings in the South. Stories of how it got to Holiday differ, but the most established one is that it was introduced to her by the owner of the Café Society venue in New York, the city’s first integrated night club. Holiday’s producer Hammond and record label Columbia refused to record it for fears of alienating Southern record retailers. They did allow a one-session release from her contract for the recording that was eventually produced by Milt Gabler.
Holiday doesn’t start singing until 70 seconds into the tune due to an improvised opening tacked on to extend the short track to 3:12. But when Holiday lays into the words “black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze,” the effect, even after 76 years, remains disturbing and unsettling. Despite the brutal subject matter, it became a million seller in 1939 (she also recorded a version in 1944) and was eventually Holiday’s most commercially popular track. In 1999, Time magazine dubbed it the song of the century.
“Strange Fruit” has since been covered frequently over the years by everyone from Nina Simone to Tori Amos, Jeff Buckley, India.Arie and even Siouxsie & the Banshees. U.K. folk singer John Martyn’s version is particularly gripping. Cassandra Wilson, who also sang it, recently inducted Holiday into New York’s famous Apollo Theater’s Walk of Fame on April 7, Holiday’s 100th birthday. A new compilation of her work, appropriately titled The Centennial Collection, speaks to how significant she, and more importantly her music, remains.
Few would dispute that Holiday is one of the most distinctive, emotionally compelling and dynamic American vocalists of any genre. She claimed to phrase her words like a horn player. Her natural ability to improvise set her apart from more traditional jazz vocalists, moving her closer to a blues singer, a role she clearly identified with.
Certainly few musicians have lived the blues as deeply as Holiday. Even on her most traditional material, you can hear the hurt, pain, anger and frustration in her idiosyncratic voice.
Reality and art uncomfortably merged when the singer played the part of a woman being abused by her lover in the 1935 Duke Ellington short Symphony In Black: A Rhapsody Of Negro Life. In it she sings the “Saddest Tale,” a title that aptly describes a stormy career which, despite all odds, still influences artists today.