A Brief History of Billie Holiday

“If you copy, it means you’re working without any real feeling. No two people on earth are alike, and its got to be that way in music or it isn’t music.”
Billie Holiday

Eleanora Fagan, more commonly known by her stage name Billie Holiday, is often singled out as one of jazz royalty’s most tragic figures. Defined in retrospect by biographers, her life was framed by the experiences of pre-Civil Rights discrimination, broken homes, childhood prostitution, sexual abuse, manipulative and parasitic relationships, drugs and trouble with the police. What resulted was an an early, penniless death.

All these experiences were certainly formative and profound for Holiday, but to define her in these terms is to reduce her to a pitiable and vulnerable victim; an image that begs the question whether any of her biographers even bothered listening to her music. Yes, the Lady sang the blues, but she did so on her own terms. Her music was more rebellious celebration than simple melancholy. For instance, on the defiant and provocative Ain’t Nobodies Business If I Do, she sings “Well I’d rather my man would hit me/Than for him to jump up and quit me/Ain’t nobodies business if I do.”

What really set Holiday apart was the sheer power of her vocal performances. It doesn’t come in the polished pitch-perfection style Ella Fitzgerald or Peggy Lee, it’s visceral and coarse, almost to point of being unseemly. Most of all its believable. When she sang the jazz standard Am I Blue in her signature drawl, you really believe that her man has packed his bags and left. You can almost imagine her sitting on the end of her bed, bereft, and singing in that moment of abandonment.

She wrote very little of her own material, but those that she did have become staples on the Jazz scene. The much covered, but still irreplicable, God Bless the Child is a tale of family, money, and Christian teachings. It’s about being down and out with nowhere to turn: “Rich relations give/ Crust of bread and such/ You can help yourself/ But don’t take too much.” That she wrote the lyrics for herself make this one of Holiday’s greatest recordings. There’s a coherence between the lyrics and the vocals which creates an intensely personal feel.

It would however be an unfair representation if this article consisted only of her blues, and one must be careful not to play in to the general image of her. Many of her songs are joyous and celebratory. Picking one out is relatively arbitrary, so here are two. Nice Work If You Can Get It showcases Holiday’s outstanding vocal acrobatics, weaving her voice around the music, breaking up words and deftly singing around the notes. Mandy is Two, written by co-founder of Capitol Records Jonny Mercer about his daughter on her second birthday, is given a wonderfully sullen interpretation. The slightly off-kilter and uneasy tone of the song is matched perfectly by Holiday’s raw, emotional style, which demonstrates why she will always be remembered as one of the great jazz vocalists.

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