When I find a 45 from an obscure Dutch progressive rock band, it isn’t that difficult to pick five or six songs that give a good sense of that band’s career arc. For other artists, that simply can’t be done—their influence is too strong, their lives too compelling, or their catalog simply runs too deep to attempt such an abbreviated presentation of their work. All of those conditions are met by Billie Holiday. So I’m going to include the songs on this 45 EP, and a couple of others of note, but as any fan of Billie’s will tell you, I’ll only be scratching the surface.
A little background. Billie was born Eleanora Fagan, in 1915, and raised by distant relatives in Philadelphia while her mother worked as a server on passenger trains. Her absent father was most likely Clarence Holiday, a musician who played with Fletcher Henderson’s band—Billie and Clarence would reconnect later in her life. She was in reform school for truancy at the age of 10, raped by a neighbor at the age of 11, and, after moving with her mother to Harlem, forced to join her as a prostitute at the age of 14. A childhood spent listening to Louis Armstrong and King Oliver gave her the confidence to develop a singing style that allowed for non-traditional phrasing and intonation, as if her voice was a cornet. She recorded songs for 26 years and sold out Carnegie Hall multiple times, but was hampered by addiction, racism and bad management. Her rendition of “Strange Fruit” is a stark cry against lynching and was one of the very first popular protest songs. She died in New York City in 1959 of cirrhosis of the liver, with police guarding her room in hopes of trying her for narcotics possession if she got better. She was an early example of the romantic doomed-addict-musician-whose-light-burned-too-bright-to-last notion, an idea which, ultimately, gets in the way of appreciating exactly how good she was as a singer and how painful her life must have actually been.
Here’s her very first single, “Your Mother’s Son-in-Law.” It was recorded with Benny Goodman and his orchestra for Columbia on November 27, 1933. Note how she had yet to settle into the higher register that would later become her trademark.
Fun, jaunty stuff.
The 45 in question was part of Columbia’s Hall of Fame Series, a line of reissues that ran from the early 1950’s through the late 1980’s. The first song, “Gloomy Sunday,” was a loose translation of a 1935 Hungarian song written by Rezső Seress. His melody and László Jávor’s lyrics came together to create a song that supposedly inspired 19 suicides in their native land; apparently more than one person jumped into the Danube clutching the sheet music. The rest of the world was, of course, fascinated, and translations in Russian, Japanese, French and English followed suit. Billie’s 1941 version was banned by the BBC because it was deemed bad for morale. Fun fact: the lyrics heard here were written by Sam M. Lewis, also responsible for the words to “I’m Sitting On Top of the World.” Listen at your own risk.
1941’s “Am I Blue?” is almost a lullaby in comparison, giving a more familiar depiction of feeling down than the extreme heard earlier. Lovely piano work from bandleader Eddy Heywood.
1940’s recording of “Body and Soul” is a solid example of both the muted trumpet timbre and aching longing that Holiday’s vocal style was known for.
1939’s “Long Gone Blues” was written by Holiday herself, and it gives a good sense of the romantic troubles she experienced over the course of her life. “I’m a good girl/But my love has gone wrong,” she tells us.
Billie starred in a couple of films over the course of her career, including New Orleans, with co-star Louis Armstrong. Boring story, but the musical numbers were great..
Holiday also made more than a dozen appearances on television, including two nights on The Tonight Show. This clip is from February of 1959, and was filmed for the UK’s Chelsea at Nine show. As far as I can tell, she never performed this song on any of her American television spots; it’s easy to imagine both her management and the networks being absolutely terrified of what the public’s reaction might have been. I leave you with an absolutely chilling version of “Strange Fruit.”