Billie Holiday, Just Because…

“The Blues Are Brewing” with Louis Armstrong

Billie Holiday (born Elinore Harris;[1] April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959) was an American jazz singer and songwriter. Nicknamed Lady Day[2] by her friend and musical partner Lester Young, Holiday was a seminal influence on jazz and pop singing. Her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo. Above all, she was admired all over the world for her deeply personal and intimate approach to singing.

Critic John Bush wrote that she “changed the art of American pop vocals forever.”[3] She co-wrote only a few songs, but several of them have become jazz standards, notably “God Bless the Child”, “Don’t Explain”, “Fine and Mellow”, and “Lady Sings the Blues”. She also became famous for singing jazz standards including “Easy Living” and “Strange Fruit”.


“Lover, Come Back To Me” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” With Stan Getz, 1951

At the age of 18 and after gaining more experience than most adult musicians can claim, Holiday was spotted by John Hammond and cut her first record as part of a studio group led by Benny Goodman, who was then just on the verge of public prominence. In 1935 Holiday’s career got a big push when she recorded four sides that went on to become hits, including “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Miss Brown to You.” This landed her a recording contract of her own, and then, until 1942, she recorded a number of master tracks that would ultimately become an important building block of early American jazz music.

Holiday began working with Lester Young in 1936, who pegged her with her now-famous nickname of “Lady Day.” When Holiday joined Count Basie in 1937 and then Artie Shaw in 1938, she became one of the very first black women to work with a white orchestra, an impressive accomplishment of her time.


“Strange Fruit” This song is still devastating, and, sadly, still relevant.

Abbey Lincoln:

I first heard her on a Victrola when I was about 14, living on a farm in Michigan. It was instant communication. I don’t remember what she was singing about but the sound of her voice, it went right to me. She sounded so human.

Later on, I worked in Honolulu for two years. Billie came to town and worked at another club where they were hiring names, like Louis Armstrong and Anita O’Day. She came to the club I was working a couple of times, in between shows, just around the corner, maybe she came to get away from where she was. It was just wonderful to have her in the room…

She was awesome and special and I did not approach her and try to be her equal. She was my elder. I didn’t know her. I’d heard many things about her and I didn’t assume anything…
Now she’s in my head. Everything I’ve ever heard her do. She’s my greatest inspiration as a singer because she was also a writer and a great woman who was out here all by herself. She was a queen without an army and anybody to protect her.

There’s one thing about Miss Holiday, she didn’t do anything for money. And she didn’t sell her people down the river for some change. She was true to the people. She sang about what was in her heart, not for bucks. The industry makes a lot of money in her name still, today, more than ever. They say she didn’t have a big range but she had a range big enough to sing great songs, so her range must have been all right. She didn’t scat, she didn’t imitate a horn, she told a story in a sweet voice.

Billie was a philosopher, too, what she said was true. She sang more than just love songs, she sang about the world she lived in and that’s why she’s still great. God bless the child that’s got their own, that’s what this world is. And “Strange Fruit,” about the people being lynched on the tree, a brilliant song that she had the courage to sing. She’s the greatest singer of her era and her life is a great monument to this country.


Harold Arlen’s “One For My Baby,” recorded in 1956. By this time Billie had suffered considerable vocal deterioration, but it’s really not evident unless you listen carefully. Her musicianship is profound.

Billie described her approach in the book Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya simply – “I don’t think I’m singing. I feel like I am playing a horn. I try to improvise like Les Young, like Louis Armstrong, or someone else I admire. What comes out is what I feel. I hate straight singing. I have to change a tune to my own way of doing it. That’s all I know.” In her autobiography Lady Sings The Blues, Billie added that “I always wanted Bessie’s big sound and Pop’s feeling. [She refers, of course, to Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.] Young kids always ask me what my style is derived from and how it evolved and all that. What can I tell them? If you find a tune and it’s got something to do with you, you don’t have to evolve anything. You just feel it, and when you sing it other people can feel something too. With me, it’s got nothing to do with working or arranging or rehearsing. Give me a song I can feel, and it’s never work.”


“Easy To Remember (But So Hard To Forget)” from “Night Music,” 1958. The guitarist is Mary Osborne.

After years of lackluster recordings and record sales, Holiday recorded Lady in Satin (1958) with the Ray Ellis Orchestra for Columbia. The album’s songs showcased her rougher sounding voice, which still could convey great emotional intensity. She gave her final performance in New York City on May 25, 1959. Not long after this event, Holiday was admitted to the hospital for heart and liver problems. She was so addicted to heroin that she was even arrested for possession while in the hospital. On July 17, 1959, Holiday died from alcohol- and drug-related complications.


By the late 1940s, after the death of her mother, Holiday’s heroin addiction became so bad she was repeatedly arrested— eventually checking herself into an institution in the hopes of breaking her habit. By 1950, the authorities denied her a license to perform in establishments selling alcohol. Though she continued to record and perform afterward, this marked the major turning point in her career. For the next seven years, Holiday would slip deeper into alcoholism and begin to lose control of her once perfect voice. In 1959, after the death of her good friend Lester Young and with almost nothing to her name, Billie Holiday died at the age of forty-four. During her lifetime she had fought racism and sexism, and in the face of great personal difficulties triumphed through a deep artistic spirit. It is a tragedy that only after her death could a society, who had so often held her down, realize that in her voice could be heard the true voice of the times.


The great version of “Fine and Mellow” with an all-star cast including Lester Young, 1957. Makes me cry every time.

It depends. Can you pass a Turing Test?

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