“Don’t threaten me with love, baby. Let’s just go walking in the rain.” — Billie Holiday
Manhattan 1944. A smoky jazz band simmers. The lights come up on a regal, almost-too-calm woman in white. She seems as if she’s sat on that stool forever. The music swells past the intro she leans in and the microphone is hit with the sweet, sculptural breath of Billie Holiday. Her eyes smolder. They flash and then hide. The lyrics are unbearably sad. The melody is heartbreakingly beautiful. It’s like she’s fanning the fire of her crushed past. The embers of broken relationships (starting with her parents), jail time, drugs (heroin, opium, marijuana) and constant financial turmoil flash with fiery elegance.
Billie Holiday was born as Eleanora Fagan Gough in 1915 in Philadelphia. (Some say that this was a “stage age” and she was really born in 1912.) Reportedly, she was abused, abandoned by both her parents and was turning tricks by age 15. She started performing in a small club in Brooklyn that same year. And three years later – at 18 she was discovered by talent producer John Hammond. He wrote her up in the paper and band leader Bennie Goodman saw the column and after seeing her perform asked Billie to play with him. Her unique voice and outlaw melodic skills (she never sang the same tune the same way twice) got her gigs with other jazz masters of the day: Count Basie, Artie Shaw and Lester Young.
“I can’t stand to sing the same song the same way two nights in succession, let alone two years or ten years. If you can, then it ain’t music, it’s close-order drill or exercise or yodeling or something, not music.” — Billie Holiday
This is REAL music. Last week, my musician friends and I were talking about the video game “Rock Band” that’s out right now, and how it teaches kids the wrong idea about music. In the game, if you hit the notes exactly as the original player played them, you win. But music is not an exact science! In all truly great music there is an element of mystery, uncertainty and improvisation. There is a spark to singing things as you FEEL them, and Billie was a master at this.
As a side note, I wish they’d have more realistic video games. In a real-world version of Rock Band, the booker would take an extra chunk of cash out of your door charge. The equipment would be stolen because no one was sleeping in the van at night. And instead of superhero looking musicians there’d be lots of smelly guys in t-shirts and people on weird drugs! The least they could do is put some crumpled beer cans in the corner. Yeesh. What are we teaching these kids?
Ugly, from Detroit — what a real rock band looks like
Anyway, Billie’s life was very real. Despite her instant fame, Billie’s turmoil never ended. But there was this thing underneath that always shone through in her performances. Some people are just born survivors. Life throws so much at them, but they persevere. And her vast catalogue of hits made between 1933 and 1958 is mind-boggling in its diversity and high quality. The Legacy Box 1933-1958 is the best collection I’ve found of Billie’s work. Disc 3 is my favorite to listen to start to end. It’s out of print, but you can still order it used.
Liquid sunshine. Brightness born of darkness. A periscope into her soul. It only takes one listen to hear the person behind the image. In one listen you’ll know why Billie calls every song she sings “the Blues”.
Join Michele Myers for Nite Life — every Friday Night at 9pm. And for a Midnight Album Spotlight each week at 12 o’clock. She also produces KEXP Documentaries — short radio features. KEXP Documentaries series include: Punk Evolution, Masters of Turntablism, American Sabor, The Heart of Soul and Music Revolutionaries. The current series is: Death, Drugs and Rock n Roll.