Billie Holiday is so cannonised, it’s easy to forget she was one hell of an outsider. Bursting onto the jazz scene of the 1930s, while racial segregation and lynchings persisted, her style & rhythmic sensibility helped found a rebellion that seeded, eventually, glam, punk and grunge. Billie worked hard and lived precariously. 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. Ex-call-girl, rape survivor, she trashed the sunny disposition expected of feminine artists. Punk girls and Hip-Hop queens like Azealia Banks owe Billie a debt. 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 at 11, then in a notorious woman’s prison when as a prostitute 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.
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, almost everybody respected her professionalism. Billie sang the songs she liked and studied musicians avidly, collaborating dynamically with saxophonist and fellow sufferer, Lester Young, who gave her the nickname ‘Lady Day’ and whom she called ‘The Prez’. Their powerful, 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 but unapologetically slept with both men and women, most famously with Tallulah Bankhead.
The young Frank Sinatra aimed at Billie’s revolutionary diction: Billie whines and glides, mucosal and direct, trickling out the emotional stickiness of her song. Her voice is carrion and magnolia. You go all the way for Billie or you don’t, to paraphrase her choosy-floozy treatment of the song, ‘All or Nothing At All.” Her songs, including those she wrote herself, from the lyrically happy ‘Our love is different’ (1939), to the blighted romance in ‘Don’t Explain’ (1944), are sung at the brink of degeneration.
She may seem mighty now but her reputation among worldwide audiences has grown in the decades following her early death, despite scoring 16 best-selling records in 1937, including the No. 1 ‘I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm’. 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.
By 1939, Billie customarily closed her performances at Café Society with the 20th Century’s most influential anti-racist song, ‘Strange Fruit’, about a lynched black person, whose murdered body swings in the Southern breeze like a “strange fruit”. The audience’s nightly silences 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 2010. Billie Holiday should be celebrated as a forerunner of fluid feminine sexuality and of the pop sound. “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.” And feeling was her art: “If I’m going to sing like someone else, then I don’t need to sing at all.”
By Soma Ghosh