Billie Holiday is so cannonised, it’s easy to forget she was one hell of a rebel. Bursting onto the jazz scene of the 1930s, while racial segregation and lynchings persisted, her style & rhythmic sensibility helped seed glam, punk and grunge. Billie worked hard and lived precariously. Ex-call-girl, rape survivor, in surviving radio interviews she is self-depracating. Yet her singing voice is sugary and blood-spat, slashing a line between your pleasure and her pain, tugging the suture ever closer into her wounds. Punk girls and Hip-Hop queens like Azealia Banks owe Billie a debt. And protestors today fighting the murders of Blacks, queers and women might find in this recalcitrant political star an individualist who was never afraid to get personal. Listen to her today and you’ll hear a woman singing like she’s been punched in the ovaries. Watch her in majestic, sombre form at the premature end of her life and you see a woman fully in charge.
Born Elinore Harris, to a single teenage mother, Billie was beaten by relatives and wrongfully imprisoned, first in a brutal Catholic reformatory after a neighbour raped her as a little girl of 11. Next she was jailed in a notorious woman’s prison, when, as a sex worker, she refused an admirer who trumped up charges against her. Emerging, she quit hustling and sang for tips in a nightclub in Harlem. She walked into The Log Cabin hungry from the street and sang ‘Trav’lin Light’. The clientele put down their drinks and cried. Her career had begun.
The young Frank Sinatra said he aimed at Billie’s revolutionary diction: Billie whines and glides, trickling out the sticky carrion of her heart. You go all the way for Billie or you don’t, to paraphrase her song, ‘All or Nothing At All”. Never shying from sluttishness, she sings that one like a choosy floozy. Her songs, including those she wrote herself, from the heart-lifting beauty of ‘Our love is different’ (1939), to the blighted romance in ‘Don’t Explain’ (1944), are sung at the brink of degeneration.
She scored 16 best-selling records in 1937, including the No. 1 ‘I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm’. But The Depression lasted longer for black artists, partly because white musicians now filled their places. Billie was racially insulted, travelling South and North, training herself with Count Basie’s band, with whom she and Lester went on the road for two years for $14 a day.
The producer John Hammond, who also signed Bob Dylan, later recalled that the risk in signing Dylan’s nasal voice was nothing compared to the flak he got for signing Holiday. At a time when cheerful, big-band music had been appropriated by white musicians, she didn’t fit the musical roster in any way.
The New York radio station that invited her to sing (in a separate room to white artists) refused to put her on air, Coast-to-Coast. Billie attracted an adoring, progressive audience at mixed-race club Café Society in New York, making friends with Leonard Bernstein, Orson Welles and Elizabeth Bishop – but it was hard work, performing 7 days a week for two years at $75 a week. Living at that kind of throttle necessitates booze and other drugs for many artists, especially those who’ve been hurt.
Women, especially Black woman, were required to be dignified and graceful – Ella Fitzgerald might be the good fairy to Billie’s dark angel. The media cast women as good or tragic. And Billie fitted the tragic mould. Wealth might have saved her, but the money she made was later drained by heroin. A rehab clinic sold her privacy to the U.S. Narcotic squad, who hounded her to an early death. An obituary by Time magazine sums up The Establishment’s begrudging awe and disapproval: Died. Billie Holiday, 44, Negro blues singer, whose husky, melancholy voice reflected the tragedy of her own life; in Manhattan. Born of indigent teenagers, schooled in a Baltimore brothel, she stubbornly nursed her resentment, poured it out in songs …
To which Billie might have retorted, in her own words: “you’ve got to have something to eat and a little love in your life before you can hold still for any damn body’s sermon on how to behave.”
In fact, her colleagues respected her professionalism. To Miles Davis she was one of the baddest motherfuckers for rocking a tune and a tight bandleader, too. Billie sang the songs she liked and studied musicians avidly, collaborating with saxophonist and fellow sufferer, Lester Young, who gave her the nickname ‘Lady Day’ and whom she called ‘The Prez’. Their Platonic bond, enabling mutual addiction, can be heard on ‘A Sailboat in the Moonlight’ on Youtube: his sax, flaccid and generous, coiling around her regal tones. Billie refused to be sexually or emotionally labelled. She did not want to be a poster girl for lesbianism. She unapologetically slept with both men and women, most famously with Tallulah Bankhead.
By 1939, Billie customarily closed her performances at New York’s multi-racial Café Society with what would become the 20th Century’s most influential anti-racist song, ‘Strange Fruit’. In this bewitching lament, a lynched Black person’s murdered body swings in the Southern breeze like a “strange fruit”. The audience’s nightly pause after the song disturbed even Billie.
“The first time I sang it, I thought it was a mistake,” she recalled. “There wasn’t even a patter of applause when I finished. Then a lone person began to clap nervously. Then suddenly everyone was clapping….”
In our era of multi-tracked, overblown production, Billie’s ability to disturb the ear of “a lone person”, with her small, pained vocal range, has been rivaled by few. She accommodates self-destruction to the point of suicide with an upright sense of timing, as in ‘Gloomy Sunday’, which Björk sang at Alexander McQueen’s funeral, in 2010. Billie Holiday should be celebrated as a forerunner of fluid feminine sexuality and of Black individualism. “I don’t think I’m singing,” she once explained. “I feel like I’m playing a horn… What comes out is what I feel.”
“If I’m going to sing like someone else, then I don’t need to sing at all.”
By Soma Ghosh