“Her pain is what got to me. Billie (Holiday) turned herself inside out, all in the name of love. She was deeper than sex, the hurt she felt was the hurt of all humanity. Great artists suffer for the people…” Marvin Gaye on Billie Holiday
Many artists African and otherwise in the 21st century have paid homage to Billie Holiday (April 7, 1915 –July 17, 1959). Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia and was renamed “Lady Day” by tenor saxophonist Lester Young who was called “Prez.”
Erykah Badu, Amy Winehouse and Cassandra Wilson are the first to come to mind when I think of 21st Century artists who are in debt to Holiday. Wilson recently appeared on the Tavis Smiley show and talked bout her respect for “Lady Day.”
Wilson’s latest project, “Coming Forth by Day,” honors Holiday, who would have turned 100 years old this year. She was crowned by Time magazine as “the true heir of Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan.” A native of Jackson, MS, she was classically trained on piano from age 6.
“I am in that lineage of singers. I see myself in that line. Abbey Lincoln was very close to my heart, very dear to my heart. And she was my mentor. And of course, the icon that Abbey followed after was Billie Holiday. That the one of the connections. She is a musician’s singer. The musicians all love her. Because she has a certain approach to the music and a certain way of getting down in the trenches with the guys. I do that as well.”
Many learned of Holiday’s life by watching the Berry Gordy (Motown) produced film “Lady Sings the Blues.” Angela Davis has pointed out in her volume, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism that, “The most common portraits of Billie Holiday highlight drug addiction, alcoholism, feminine weakness, depression, lack of formal education, and other difficulties unrelated to her contributions as an artist.”
The record reflects that Holiday had contradictions like all human beings. However, Holiday was a “race” woman who stood up for herself as an African woman born in the United States. She is known internationally for the Abel Meeropol (aka Lewis Allan) penned song, “Strange Fruit.”
“Strange Fruit,” recorded in 1939 when Holiday was 24 years of age, portrays the United States as the “Land of the Tree and the Home of the Slave” and not the “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.”
Randy Weston, a friend of Saturday Morning live on Radio Regent and Diasporic Music on Uhuru Radio knew Holiday. Weston wrote about his first encounter with Holiday in, African Rhythms: The Autobiography of Randy Weston.
Says Weston, “One memorable evening I went to see Billie Holiday at the Onyx Club, and while I’m hanging out at the bar by the door all of a sudden Queen Billie herself walks in, all decked out in a fur coat and the usual gardenia in her hair, cradling that dog of hers in her arms. With my uniform on I guess I must have looked trustworthy, because she looked right at me and said, “Would you hold my dog?” I said, “Yeah, certainly, of course, your majesty.”
“So I held her dog the entire set. She sang “Strange Fruit” that night and it really brought tears to my eyes.”
Aminata Moseka (Abbey Lincoln) opined about the song “Strange Fruit.” Moseka said Billie Holiday “had the courage to defend herself. When they were lynching the men and women in the south, she sang about it. None of the other women or men sang about it: that’s why Billie is different from the rest of them.”
After “Strange Fruit” the other song that Holiday is known for is “God Bless the Child.” “God Bless the Child” was written by Holiday and Arthur Herzog in 1939. “God Bless the Child” became Holiday’s most popular and covered record. Holiday’s rendition of the song was honored with the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1976.
I remember reading Holiday’s autobiography Lady Sings the Blues which she wrote with William Duffy. In this volume she indicated that an argument with her mother over money led to the song. She indicated that during the argument her mother said the line (“God bless the child that got his own.”) “God bless the child who’s got his own” is a truth that many of us in the world African Liberation Movement took to heart. Cultural-freedom has to be political.
“Lady Sings the Blues” is another song that should be singled out. It was written by Holiday, and jazz pianist Herbie Nichols. It is the title song to her 1956 album. The song was also chosen to be the title of the 1956 autobiography by Holiday and author William Duffy, and the 1972 movie starring Diana Ross as Holiday.
Billie’s accompanied by Charlie Shavers (trumpet), Tony Scott (clarinet, arranger), Paul Quinichette (tenor saxophone), Wynton Kelly (piano), Kenny Burrell (guitar), Aaron Bell (bass) and Lenny McBrowne (drums).
Moseka has the last word about this great ancestor. Says Moseka, “(Billie) Holiday was a philosopher and a queen without a court. She never sold her soul, and there has never been a more beautiful woman on the stage than Billie Holiday.”
Norman (Otis) Richmond, aka Jalali, was born in Arcadia, Louisiana, and grew up in Los Angeles. He left Los Angeles after refusing to fight in Viet Nam because he felt that, like the Vietnamese, Africans in the United States were colonial subjects.
Jalali is producer/host for the Diasporic Music show on UhuruRadio.com every Sunday at 2pm ET and for RadioRegent.com’s Saturday Morning Live show.
His column Diasporic Music appears monthly in The Burning Spear newspaper.