This is the song that many will first associate with Billie Holiday. Written with Jazz pianist and band leader Herbie Nichols it was recorded in sessions from August of 1955 but released in 1956 on the five track album of the same name. This is also the title of a biopic that came out in 1972 with the legend Diana Ross playing Holiday. The movie did not receive the greatest of reviews and is loosely based on Holiday’s autobiography which has the same title as well if you’re sensing a theme here – but as often the case with these films, it’s not very factually accurate. However it is quite enjoyable from my standpoint and well worth watching just to see Ross perform the songs.
Billie herself would record over 200 cover songs and many memorable versions from The American Songbook/American Standards. Of her 40 original songs, “Lady Sing the Blues” has not been covered as often and coincidentally there are currently 40 versions. The first one appeared in a medley by Susan Carter in 1970. This next clip is from one of the many tribute albums to Billie Holiday, interestingly it so happens to have been assembled by the versatile actor Peter Stormare. As I understand the story, Peter, who has his own record label named Stormvox was grieving the death of Jimi Hendrix back in 1970 and his mother gave him a Billie Holiday album which helped him to the point of him promising his mother he would do a tribute album.
This is the instrumental track from the co-writer Herbie Nichols and it was released at about the same time as the vocal track in 1956.
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
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.
Writer James L. Dickerson coined the brilliant term Mojo Triangle in 2005, before I learned of it I had referred to the area as the reverse Bermuda Triangle of music. This (among other things I’ll admit) is why I write a blog and he is the award winning author of Mojo Triangle: Birthplace of Country, Blues, Jazz and Rock ‘n’ Roll. I confess I haven’t gotten round to reading it yet but I’ve been itching to write about the area for some time and I have researched the names and places for several years now. The ‘triangle’ refers to the geographic region with Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans as the three corners. The states of Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana are at the core. We know it as part of the “Deep South” and it’s been referred to by other music related terms that pre date the ‘Mojo’ handle such as “America’s Musical Triangle” and the “Americana Musical Triangle”. But quite appropriately adding the noun Mojo conjures up a mysterious and magical aura. Read More »