As promised I am posting a series on Billie Holiday.
There have been other names but you can connect the dots of important women in Blues and Jazz music with Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Most of my readers will know about Holiday but since this is the first in a short series I will give you this link to her bio from BillieHoliday.com.
From Wikipedia I gathered a few things everyone should know about her. She was born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia, and to say she overcame horrendous circumstances is and understatement. She was abandoned by her father (believed to be Clarence Halliday) and then passed around by her mother to live among relatives throughout her early life. By the time she was 12 she had been sexually assaulted and was running errands for money at a brothel or scrubbing floors. She re-joined her mother who had left for Harlem by 1929. She began singing in nightclubs as a young teen and her first recordings, with the help of John Hammond were in 1933 at age 18. From there she would work with the leading names in Jazz and Blues including Count Basie and Artie Shaw.
She would rise to the highest height of success and not unlike many in the business she had her issues with alcohol and drug abuse. No doubt a combination of past trauma and getting caught up in the fast life of an entertainer she would struggle with addiction the rest of her life. At a pivotal point in her career she came to the attention of the FBI. This would lead to her incarceration on a drug charge. The song that brought her great success but also got her labeled a subversive or worse was “Strange Fruit”. From her first live performance in 1939 the evocative song about lynching and racism in the South would always stun the audience and serve as an education to many. Her insistence on recording it and continuing to sing it despite the warnings was likely the reason she came to the attention of law enforcement in the first place. Anyone singing protest songs and in this case about racism or lynching, in the late 1930’s and 1940’s attracted unwanted attention from authorities. Particularity for an outspoken Black woman.
“Strange Fruit” is a courageous recording by the legendary Billie Holiday from 1939. This song makes an appearance on my “25 of the Greatest Cover Songs #51-75” post. It is from a poem by another brave soul, Lewis Allan (Abel Meeropol) as a protest against racism and lynchings in the American South. He put the poem to a tune and his wife and others sang it at protest rallies. The lyrics are dark and disturbing. Eventually the song made its way to Holiday who first added it to close her Nightclub act. It was only recorded after her efforts to find a label willing to do it. Her delivery is haunting and deeply emotional. Covered over 100 times. Here is Nina Simone with an equally amazing version from 1965.
You can find my post on Nina Simone from 2019 here.