I’m thrilled about the latest Billie Holiday revival. The film UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY, starring Andra Day, has fueled much of the interest. (You can stream it on Hulu). I haven’t seen it, but I understand that Holiday — known by music lovers as “Lady Day” — is portrayed as a civil rights hero, in part because of a song she recorded called STRANGE FRUIT. For years, the song was banned from radio airplay. It graphically depicts the lynching of blacks in the South (… ”Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees ….” It’s a song that’s difficult to listen to without being outraged at the violence perpetrated against blacks.
Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia General Hospital on April 7, 1915- – one of the many jazz greats who were born here. During her life, Holiday endured racism and physical abuse. Ultimately, she turned to drugs and booze. Holiday’s death came much too soon. She was 44. But it’s Billie’s life that should be celebrated.
I got hooked on jazz and the blues by Joel Dorn, a college friend who later went on to become an award-winning producer of Roberta Flack’s KILLING ME SOFTLY. And though I learned to appreciate and like many jazz artists, the one whom I fell in love with was Holiday. Billie could swing with the best of them. Like on THEM THERE EYES. But it was her way with ballads that still grabs me. Her interpretation of lyrics was like that of great stage actors. Listening to Holiday’s vocal phrasing on BODY AND SOUL is to hear vocal artistry on a level with that of Frank Sinatra. No one else has come close to either of them.
When I was a disc jockey in Wildwood during the summer of 1960, I featured an hour of Billie Holiday and George Shearing, a jazz pianist, on my show every Monday night. I found out that Billie’s unique styling was not for everyone. I received more than a few complaints that she sounded “drunk.” I felt the sorrow most of us feel for folks who can’t seem to appreciate the finer things in life. Pity more than anger. I finally figured out that summertime in Wildwood was a time for Rick Nelson (“Travelin’ Man”), not Lady Day. The owner of the Wildwood station wanted to know why I played so many black artists and not “barbershop quartets.” I left. Got hired at Philly’s jazz station at that time, WHAT-FM. I resumed playing an hour of Billie Holiday on Monday nights. The jazz audience was more amenable. Even in her prime, Holiday’s music was never as accessible as the music of other female jazz and pop performers such as Ella Fitzgerald or, later, Diana Krall. However, her vocal style influences some performers even today. One of them is Madeleine Peyroux.
Andra Day is not the first singer-actor who has played Holiday on the screen. Diana Ross was unforgettable as Holiday in THE LADY SINGS THE BLUES. Ross won a Golden Globes award and an Oscar nomination as Best Actress for that performance. The soundtrack, featuring Ross’ singing, soared to No. 1 in popularity in 1972. Andra Day reportedly was ready to turn down the Holiday role in the current because she believed Ross owned the role.
Jazz critics are tough. Too many are narrow-minded. For example, they almost uniformly hate it when established jazz artists record with string sections. These performers are considered “sellouts.” “Going commercial.” It’s as if jazz artists are not allowed to cross over — become more accessible — to a general audience. Recording with strings is a no-no to them. Even the late, great Charlie Parker was roundly criticized when one of his albums included strings. Parker’s entire vast library of recordings is free of strings. Except for two volumes that Parker recorded with a small classical string section, along with his usual jazz rhythm section. Never mind the purists. The Verve recordings CHARLIE PARKER WITH STRINGS are extraordinarily beautiful. In 1958, Billie recorded an album with strings – -LADY IN SATIN.
LADY IN SATIN was Holiday’s last album with one of the most famous producers of jazz at the time, Norman Granz. The album was released after Holiday’s death and features such songs as I GET ALONG WITHOUT YOU VERY WELL, I’M A FOOL TO WANT YOU and my personal favorite — VIOLETS FOR YOUR FURS. Holiday reportedly wanted a “pretty album, something delicate … she wasn’t interested in some wild, swinging jam session.” She recorded this album backed by a full 40-piece orchestra. The album got a mixed reception.
Holiday was near the end of her life. Her vocal range was not what it once was. Lady Day was weary. Weary of the turmoil of her life. Her sadness was laid bare. Her voice sometimes cracked. She had trouble reaching some of the notes on I GET ALONG WITHOUT YOU VERY WELL. Her repeated attempts are included in the re-issue of the album. The Penguin Guide to Jazz described LADY IN SATIN as “a voyeuristic look at a beaten woman.” And maybe it was. But it was also beautiful. The sadness contained in LADY IN SATIN is palpable. Painful to hear and feel. It’s the sadness of the human condition. Something we’ve all felt sometime in our lives.
A dimly lit room. A glass of wine. I listen to LADY IN SATIN. And I’m grateful Lady Day once passed this way.
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