Too often, when we hear about Billie Holiday, we hear mainly about her struggles with substance abuse. We hear about her tumultuous love life and troubled childhood. We see photographs of the now-iconic gardenia in her hair and the glass of gin in her hand and we marvel at the “feeling” she put into her music, an organic by-product of the tragedy and hopelessness in her personal life.
Well, yes, it’s true that Billie Holiday could tear your heart out with her plaintive, spare renderings of sad songs. But it’s condescending and reductive to attribute the emotional impact of Billie Holiday’s singing to her tempestuous personal life. She was a masterful musician, first and foremost, and it’s a shame to gloss over that fact in favor of the more salacious elements of her story.
When I listen to early Billie Holiday recordings, I marvel again and again at the suppleness and horn-like flexibility of her voice. With her distinctive timbre and unique way of shaping vowels, Lady’s sound is unmistakable. She possessed a rhythmic dexterity and playfulness that enabled her to interact with her bandmates as though she were another horn; in short, she swung like mad. Her time was perfect. A true improviser, she mitigated the limitations of her somewhat narrow vocal range by composing new melodies on the spot.
Her later recordings reveal a voice that is weathered and worn, but, as evidenced in recorded rehearsals from the 1950s with pianist Jimmie Rowles, Billie Holiday’s musical inventiveness showed no signs of slowing down.
I don’t mean to suggest that we can (or even should) leave Holiday’s personal life out of the discussion when we remember her, but if we must rehash the ups and downs of her addictions and love affairs, can we also make sure to acknowledge the depth of Billie Holiday’s courage? When Holiday joined Artie Shaw’s band in the 1930s, she was one of the first black singers to appear with a white orchestra—then she left him when she got tired of his bullshit and rightly surmised that she could make a lot more money cutting records on her own.
In 1939, she forced white audiences to acknowledge the brutality of racism when she performed Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit,” a graphic and painful song about lynchings in the Jim Crow-era American South. Holiday herself said she feared for her own safety, but she kept singing it, and successfully fought to record “Strange Fruit,” turning to Milt Gabler at the fledgling Commodore Records when other labels balked.
Billie Holiday’s penultimate album, Lady In Satin, was recorded not long before her death. In the album’s original liner notes, Irving Townsend notes that all of the songs on Lady In Satin were new to Billie Holiday. What’s more, she insisted that Ray Ellis be the album’s arranger and conductor; she’d heard the young arranger’s first album and instinctively knew that he was the right person with whom to record the poignant love songs she’d chosen.
Yet, when Lady In Satin is discussed, we tend to talk only about the diminished quality of Billie Holiday’s voice, and of the way the (predominantly) melancholy ballads on the album mirrored her personal downfall. I would humbly ask that we also pay tribute to the fact that, even as she neared the end of her life, Holiday was acting as her own A&R person, choosing brand-new repertoire and a young up-and-comer to arrange and conduct what she would describe as the best album she ever made.
Today, on her centennial, I give thanks that throughout every twist, turn, and travail of her too-brief life, Billie Holiday kept singing. Thank you, Lady.