Billie Holiday's troubled life colored every phrase she sang, and she brought her listeners to moments of joy that soothed the worst heartache. No matter how lousy a hand life deals you, one song from Billie reminds you that she had... [more]
Billie Holiday's troubled life colored every phrase she sang, and she brought her listeners to moments of joy that soothed the worst heartache. No matter how lousy a hand life deals you, one song from Billie reminds you that she had it worse and still, somehow, remained beautiful. The woman whose soulful style and emotional voice set new standards for jazz and blues singing grew up poor in Baltimore. The young Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan in 1915) ran errands and cleaned up at a neighborhood whorehouse, where she first heard the music of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. Her early life was difficult -- she was abandoned by her father (guitarist Clarence Holiday), sexually assaulted at age ten and sent to a reformatory, quit school after the fifth grade, and was turning tricks in Harlem by age 15. Her later fame did little to bring her happiness. Holiday's adult life was marred by racism, self-destructive relationships with abusive and manipulative men, and legal troubles stemming from the heroin and alcohol addictions that killed her at age 44.
But Holiday turned her tragedies into powerful music. Her legacy includes a haunting interpretation of "Strange Fruit," with its hard-hitting lyrics about lynching: "Southern trees bear a strange fruit/ Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/ Black bodies swaying in the Southern breeze/ Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees." Much of her finest work was done with Lester Young, the brilliant tenor saxophonist for Count Basie's band, who nicknamed her "Lady Day."
With no technical training, Holiday created her own unique phrasing and sophisticated interpretations. While other jazz vocalists may have had greater power or a more beautiful tone, no one could match Holiday's inventiveness, her risky timing, her illuminating wit, or the direct and wrenching honesty of her work. She personalized signature songs such as "Miss Brown to You," "He's Funny That Way," "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," and "God Bless the Child" with subtle twists of rhythm and melody. Holiday played her voice like a horn, seeking to emulate her early idols but ending up with an unforgettable sound all her own. [show less]