A Billie Holiday Tale
I finished reading “Billie Holiday – the Musician and the Myth” by John Szwed recently. Szwed begins with a foreword explaining why he chose to write yet another book on Holiday’s life (there have been more than 40). He explains that he felt due diligence had not been paid to Holiday’s recordings, with some authors being suspected of not even listening to her recording output.
At any rate, my own interest in Holiday’s life and legacy is minimal. Her tale is not a happy one, plagued with addiction and a damaging ban from performing in her adopted New York state due to her arrest history.
The Szwed work dives deeply into her recordings interlacing his analysis with some interesting personal life side trips and experiences. I found his description of the early minstrel performers intriguing. I learned that the “black face” tradition for minstrels was not limited to white performers, but also adopted by black singers, and in fact, the idiom was very popular among black audiences, who enjoyed both black and white performers indulging in the art form.
Szwed does due diligence to Holiday’s controversial recording of “Strange Fruit” which just comes with the Holiday territory.
But all things said – “The Musician and the Myth” is a sad tale. Holiday described herself as a “jazz singer” rarely a “blues” practitioner. She was one of the first jazz singers to employ string accompaniment and in fact was a somewhat unique simply from the standpoint of being a “jazz vocalist”, not always embraced by the jazz establishment – at least initially.
Her story is what it is – another unhappy ending to a life with some ups, much acclaim, and ultimately a final resounding down. Billie Holiday, born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia, PA in 1915, passed away on July 17th, 1959 losing a long battle with alcohol and drugs.
Holiday had only one charting single with “Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?)” in May of 1945 – reaching number 5 on the R&B charts but remaining on those charts for only a single week. She had four posthumous long plays, with 1972’s “The Billie Holiday Story” being her most successful topping off at number 85.