Poverty. Abandonment. Assault. Incarceration. Prostitution. They were all reality to Lady Day before she turned 15. An absent father, an uneducated mother and miles separating her from anything remotely resembling structure were as regular as the morning train or the evening news. From Philly to Baltimore to New York, she bobbed and weaved through a treacherous childhood that only provided her occasional parenting.
One constant, which was clearly evident, both to herself and to all around her was her destiny as a singer. The young lady was strangely gifted, not one of those soft, feminine voices that caressed your ear like flower petals. No. It was short in range and questionable in depth. It wavered in and out like flowing lace curtains on a breezy day. Notes and keys were mere suggestion and rarely did Billie allow them to control her.
Her earliest experimentation at airing out the pipes was in the brothel she worked in, turning tricks in her mid teens. She would listen to contemporary music, but she wouldn’t grab her brush and run to the mirror. She didn’t mimic the chanteuse. She played a solitary game of oneupsmanship and won every time.
Holiday began to work the club circuit and build her name. After being plucked from the stage by Benny Goodman, she began her professional recording career. Her voice was so unconventional, it proved resistant to the normal uber feminine happy go lucky music and she could not execute those songs the way they were supposed to be sung. Happy renditions were not her specialty. Even on upbeat composition like “I’m Painting the Town Red” or “Swing, Brother, Swing” the melancholy stole the show. She took popular songs of the time and rebuilt them from the ground up. Not lyrically, but emotionally.
Her delivery was so different that its ugliness in structure became a beautiful expression of the pain within. In that musical belligerence lay the sweetest of ironies. Billie Holliday discovered her genius and 30’s contemporary music spun off its axis. She heard music like it was being read from a sheet. She took notes and phrases, and poked and prodded them into submission, bending them around the tone she saw fit. There were well trained musicians who couldn’t keep up with the untrained songstress so she kept her circle of collaborators small. However, once she started working with original composition, she established herself as one of the most musically adept vocalists of all time.
Billie Holiday was the undisputed queen of improvisation; her ability to re-imagine a song, incredible. Some say she never sang the same song the same way twice and each rendition was sturdy enough to stand on its own. That talent allowed her to perform with Count Basie and Artie Shaw. Her star rose and immediately lesser singers were attempting to mimic her style. It couldn’t be done.
Swing was still around but Billie began to meander into strictly jazz territory. The somber lyrics were perfect for a woman whose life was still circumventing ease and calm like being content was unwelcomed. She cursed like a sailor. She was a slave to narcotics and the ill treatment she received at the hands of her lovers was legendary. Through the turmoil, she grew as a musician and as a writer, adding new levels of pain and depth with every failed relationship or fall from the wagon. Soon, the turmoil of her life would become too heavy to empower her talent and there simply wasn’t room for both.
Holiday got to the point where she rarely showed up to work sober. Her health began to fail as did her once tremendous voice. A very public arrest and conviction for possession halted her performing save one magic night at Carnegie Hall in 1948. Her fans welcomed her back with open arms. The show was standing room only. It was heralded as one of the best concerts of her career and the beginning of the rest of her life. And in some ways it was.
The 1950’s saw Holiday still recording and performing. There were other shows at Carnegie Hall, and several more albums, but unfortunately more abusive men. The drugs haunted her until the end and she died in the midst of a drug investigation. Her liver was shot as was her chance of ever finding fame without the misfortune of that wretchedly messy life. She was 44 years old.
Billie Holiday was never able to capitalize on her amazing talent to live a life befitting a jazz superstar. She couldn’t break the pattern of abuse from others or herself, but that angst fed her genius. Friends and collaborators still believe that she was a victim of arrested development. Her brand of self-destruction was a plea for the love and understanding that ironically her bad behavior and acceptance of worse pushed away. But that voice, that perfectly imperfect gift, will be loved and cherished forever. She never lived in peace. Hopefully, she rests that way. Happy Birthday Billie.
“Miss Brown to You”
“God Bless the Child”
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