"Strange Fruit" Loop

Revisiting Billie Holiday's legacy in honor of her 90th birthday.

By Eugene Holley Jr.
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Apr. 6, 2005

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In a 1956 radio interview, a young reporter named Mike Wallace asked jazz diva Billie Holiday, who was promoting her new autobiography Lady Sings the Blues, why so many jazz artists die young.

"We try to live 100 days in one day," she replied in her sensuous, gravely voice. "And we try to please so many people."

Holiday's answer was a chilling premonition of her own tragic death from multiple organ failure in a New York hospital three years later, on July 17, 1959.

With her gardenia and her beautiful still-life aura, Holiday sang with an ancient ache that soothed, swooned, soared and sighed, and pulled any tune into the irresistible black hole of her soul. She didn't just sing songs-she transformed them.

That long-lost interview is found on Billie Holiday: The Ultimate Collection, an impressive new multimedia compilation featuring her signature songs "My Man (Mon Homme)," "Fine and Mellow" and the spectral "Strange Fruit"-the bare and brutal song about lynching-along with interviews, photos, documents, film cameos and TV appearances with Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and the man who named her "Lady Day," her longtime partner, saxophonist Lester Young.

The release celebrates the 90th anniversary of Holiday's birth on April 7, 1915, in Philadelphia. She was born Eleanora Fagan, the daughter of two poor unmarried Baltimore teenagers: domestic Sadie Fagan and banjo player/guitarist Clarence Holiday. Bob Perkins, historian and jazz host at WRTI-FM, says, "[Sadie] came to work for a white family in Philadelphia. She was pregnant, and when she began to show, the family fired her."

After Holiday's birth at Philadelphia General Hospital, Sadie returned to Baltimore with Eleanora, who had a difficult childhood. She cut school, was raped and was sent to a Catholic reform house. By the time she was a teenager, she and her mother worked in brothels as domestics and occasionally as prostitutes.

Despite the poverty and poor conditions, Holiday was bolstered by recordings by Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. And her father, though largely absent, would take her to gigs with him.

"Her musical training was fascinating," says Robert G. O'Meally, director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University, and author of Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday. "Although she worked in houses of prostitution, she made connections with fine musicians, many of whom came right out of the church, and were accustomed to changing keys according to the situation. She's not like Dinah Washington or Sarah Vaughan, who grew up in a gospel choir. But you do hear the intensity and the prayfulness that comes through in the Catholic service, which she attended very often. She also went to storefront churches, where she was in touch with the tradition of gospel singing."

Naming herself after the actress Billie Dove, Holiday was a singing waitress in a Harlem nightclub when she was discovered by jazz impresario John Hammond in 1933. After breakout tours with Benny Goodman and pianist Teddy Wilson, and Count Basie, she was featured in the racially mixed Caf´┐Ż Society nightclub in Greenwich Village, where she emerged as a star in her own right.

But by the late '50s, her drug use made her easy prey for the police. She did hard time for her habit, and to make matters worse, she always hooked up with the wrong men, notably her abusive second husband (and manager) Louis McKay, chillingly portrayed by Billie Dee Williams in the 1972 screen version of Lady Sings the Blues.

By 1959 she was a shell of her former self, and was arrested for drug possession on her deathbed. A guard was posted outside her New York hospital room.

Holiday once said that "anything I do sing, it's a part of my life," and her life and music influences the hip-hop generation.

"Her voice has an expressiveness unknown to many singers with bigger voices," says Philly-born Farah Jasmine Griffin, another Columbia University professor, and author of If You Can't Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday. "This is something I think we hear in Macy Gray, who's been quoted as saying that after she heard Billie Holiday, she was empowered to sing. Erykah Badu has inherited her sense of phrasing."

Griffin also teaches a seminar on Holiday. "We try to discern just what it was that made her so unique and special in order to see how she changed American popular music and influenced generations who followed her," says Griffin. "We explore representations about her and her own performance in order to get a better understanding of how our culture wrestles with race, gender, class and sexuality.

"She speaks to contemporary women, especially artists, in a number of ways. Through her music she gives voice to their longing, their vulnerability, and to both the tragedies and triumphs that characterize a fully developed life."

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