Lady Day at 100

033-billie-holiday-theredlistToo 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.




38 thoughts on “Lady Day at 100

    • Thank you! It occurred to me that we seldom hear about the “feeling” with which Charlie Parker played music. Sure, we hear about the drugs and his early death, but we also hear about his innovations, his harmonic sense, his improvisatory genius. Yet, with Billie Holiday, we hear about her bad boyfriends and emotions. I wanted to talk about her MUSIC today.

  1. Wonderful piece, Lady Day was, and still is, a terrific singer who knew her limitations. Her personal life owed nothing to her music life other than shaping the songs she chose to suit her style. The First Lady of the blues and rightly remembered for being a swing icon.

  2. Well done…Billie was simply marvellous…when I went thru difficulties in my 20 years of marriage, her music always soothed and commiserated with me…Lady Day is still alive in spirit and melody…

  3. What a beautiful piece about Billie Holliday. I am glad it wasn’t about her personal life and the effects it had on her performance. She was an instrument herself and as you say so eloquently she knew how to play her own notes. It is a shame that we will never see the likes of Billie Holliday again but must say thank you to her for letting us listen to her beautiful music and voice. I hope wherever her death has taken her that she still sings on.

  4. Thanks for a lovely tribute to a great artist. I am deeply moved when I think of the beauty created by Billie in all the circumstances – especially when singing with Lester Young’s tender saxophone. Regards Thom.

  5. Did an art project for her in high school where I had to mold the iconic picture of her singing into the mic out of clay. Loved her ever since I discovered her, and I totally respect her music!

  6. Love love love Billie. Her voice was so unique and still is. She puts me into an amazing mood and transforms my surroundings.

  7. Great piece as like you I am fed up with only hearing about her ‘tragic’ life. Yes it was tough but as you say she was so much more. I have the “Lady Day The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia” on vinyl and it’s one of my treasured possessions. She was amazing, is amazing and I’m sure if asked it’s for her music she would rather be remembered.

  8. What a great writing on Lady Day. I definitely believe that Billie’s personal life contributed to her delivery style of singing. Her voice was not really that great in terms of singers from her era like Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald. It was the emotion that was inflected in songs like “Strange Fruit” that made you understand why she was having a shot of Bourbon and smoking a cigarette.

  9. Love her music, loved her book, which I read over and over as a teenager long ago, ought be required reading . Memorized parts..a true and natural genius. thanks.

  10. Very well-written, and I agree with your points wholeheartedly. When I hear Billie, it’s not her tumultuous life I think of – in fact, I forget it. I listen and hear her heart, and I often sing along. A person’s depth of emotion is not always caused by what they’ve been through – many people are born as individuals who have a natural affinity for deep emotion, and all life really does is fine-tune it. I know that’s how it was with me.

  11. Thank you so much for writing so beautifully about a women of such soul and courage by shedding light on her voice and musical talent. It was about the music and she knew that and always came back to that & never stopped. The racism she endured, the sexism and struggles she endured continue on the focus of just her struggles. People need to remember the music and her voice frees us all to a place she had attained on her own.

    • …just a follow up – check out Casandra Wilson’s tribute to Billie Holiday. I went to see her a few weeks ago in a Jazz Festival in Southern Spain and wow, she blew me away!!

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