When I write about cover songs, I like to look and talk about numbers. As we all know there are many ways to look at statistics. My major source is Secondhandsongs.com. For example there are categories such as the most covered songs by title, there is the most covered singer songwriters and the most covered authors (lyricists and composers). There is also a category for the most covered performers, which does not take into account who wrote the song, just who sang it. As many of these lists are, it is dominated by male performers, The Beatles being at the top. The first female is Judy Garland at #11 and the next is Billie Holiday at #23.
As an author of songs Billie may not rank as high on the lists but for writing her own songs Holliday is best known for “God Bless the Child” (co-written with her oft collaborator Arthur Herzog Jr.) from 1939, first recorded in 1941. There are over 500 versions of this remarkable song. In her autobiography Billie said the inspiration for the song came from an argument with her mother over money. Billie had said to her “God Bless the Child that got his own”. The lyrics start with a reference to the Book of Matthew from the New Testament. She took the draft lyrics to Arthur Herzog and they fleshed out the rest of the song.
Billie Holiday is most certainly not alone in having challenging life experiences, but from an early age she was forced to look after herself and learn how to survive. Singers and songwriters will often say that pain, suffering and broken hearts can make for the best songs. Billie was able to channel her feelings and emotions into her singing, again not a unique quality but few did it as well and it’s one of the reasons she is set apart from others. From the serious topics to the more lighthearted where she delivered some of the most vivacious performances you will ever see, such as her interpretations of classic Blues and American Standards not mention the songs she wrote/co-wrote.
No matter how hard I try I will never understand how difficult her life was, not only as a child but especially as a Black woman trying to make a living as a singer. From what I have read, being a person of the times and culture in 1930’s and beyond, even as her career developed into Superstardom, she was often forced to do as she was told. As much as she railed against it, many times she just had no choice. While it varied from place to place she would encounter things such as entering through the delivery or service door, as Blacks were not allowed to use the front door. At some places Blacks could not even be a guest in the audience, even if they were performing at the venue. Perhaps it was not being able to find a hotel that accepted Blacks, or being refused service in restaurants. But when she was in front of the microphone she channelled her energy and gave her heart and soul. Her life cut short by illnesses brought on by her addictions and she died at age 44. Billie was not a Rock and Roll singer but on July 17, 1959 it was another “day the music died”.
For me one of her many enduring songs is “I’ll Be Seeing You” that she recorded in 1944. Written by the great composer Sammy Fain (“Love is a Many Splendored Thing”) and the fine lyricist Irving Kahal. The song, including many instrumentals has been recorded over 500 times. It was first performed by Tamara (Drasin) a Ukrainian born singer who was one of the leading actors on Broadway until her tragic death in a plane crash while on her way to entertain troops during WWII. Bing Crosby hit #1 also in 1944 and the song had charted for Frank Sinatra in 1940. From an article in Ebony Magazine in 1958 Sinatra cites Billie Holiday or Lady Day as she was often referred, as his “greatest single musical influence” and that she was “unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years”.
Thi song did not chart for Billie and her version is perhaps overlooked. However, evn as there are truly many lovely renditions of this beautiful song, as she was so often able to do, when you hear her sing you forget that anyone else had done it before or since.
The first recording was by Dick Todd with Orchestra in 1940