Written by Nicole Trissell
Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan in 1915), nicknamed “Lady Day”, sang incredible jazz tunes primarily during the 30s and 40s in the United States, at the height of American swing and jazz. She based herself in New York City, where she started singing in Harlem nightclubs as a young teen, and eventually to sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall.
Billie Holiday is celebrated as one of the most talented jazz singers who ever lived. Her timing, her sense of improvisation, her charm and style captivated audiences and earned her huge respect from other musicians.
But the life of a travelling star was hard, especially when compounded by the trials of pre-civil rights America. Billie Holiday, as one of the highest paid Black singers of the time, was still often asked to enter and leave gigs via the service elevator. This, plus a constant string of unhappy romantic relationships lead to heavy drug use throughout the 40s. This eventually landed her in jail and caused a slow decline in her voice and reputation, and by 1959 cirrhosis of the liver had claimed her life.
Listen and join me on a journey through two decades of Billie Holiday recordings, as I show you some of her music that has touched me the most, as a dancer and a human.
Your Mother’s Son in Law – 1933 recording
While this song is a little on the swing side for those of us of the blues dance persuasion, it is Billie’s first ever recorded song, set down in 1933 and bears listening to.
An interesting thing to note here, it takes more than a full minute for Billie’s singing to join the band already in full swing. It feels like it’s the band that’s the star here, especially the horns. She only sings twice, like an accent, or an additional instrument, but her singing does not feel like a focus.
Let’s Call a Heart a Heart – 1936 recording
Let’s Call a Heart a Heart is one of my favourite Billie songs.
Sentimental and Melancholy – 1937 recording
In both this and the previous song, I love the artistry with which she frolics and tumbles and holds the words.
You Go to My Head – 1938 recording
Yesterdays – 1939 recording
Fine and Mellow – 1939 recording
Fine and Mellow was actually written by Billie Holiday herself, in spite of the fact that she never learned to read music.
God Bless the Child – 1941 recording
Long Gone Blues – 1941 recording
These two are lovely, exquisitely emotive songs, and indicative of the thing that captivated so many audiences. Her voice soars over the rest of the small combo or quiet instrumentation, as the highlighted, soloing instrument, full of expression. In Long Gone Blues especially, compare what her voice does to what the horns do in their solos.
Georgia on My Mind – 1941 recording
This has quickly become my favourite version of this song. Again, there is no comparing to the way she sings, carries the words, bends the notes…
Gloomy Sunday – 1941 recording
Don’t Explain – 1946 recording
Exquisite, soaring torch songs. But as you listen to these two songs, side by side, compare the quality of her voice. All her artistry is still present in both songs, but the five years that passed between these two songs have been hard on Billie’s voice. It gets thinner, more gravely.
Baby, I Don’t Cry Over You – 1946 recording
This song. Just everything about it. It’s carefree, it’s a great, empowering message. “I could have told you, right from the start, no man is man enough to break my heart.” You tell him, girl!
Do Your Duty – 1951 recording
This song is one of the last songs Billie ever recorded. It had extra significance to her, as this was a standard of Bessie Smith, who was one of Billie’s early influences and idols. Personally, I like Bessie’s version better, but it’s kind of fun having these lyrics paired with a big, polished swing band.
Nearing the End
Between these last two songs, Billie dealt with several arrests for narcotics possession, more abusive relationships, and continued drug use. She also was able to play packed houses at huge venues but lost her ability to play in the intimate New York bars and clubs that she loved, due to losing her New York Cabaret Card as part of her legal troubles. After several more years of declining health and career, during which she published her autobiography, she finally passed away from side effects of her chronic drug use.
Her rise was meteoric: fast, bright, and over far too soon.
The last piece I want to leave you with was her most controversial, and also the biggest-selling song. The song Strange Fruit was originally written as a poem by teacher Abel Meeropol and speaks through intense imagery of racism and hate crimes. Billie Holiday would sing it at live performances often, on the condition that servers stopped serving, space was made dark, and there was no encore after the weighty performance.
I leave you with a video of Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit.
Many thanks to the author Nicole Trissell.