Billie Holiday is possibly the most famous female jazz singer of all. Though her voice ranged only about an octave, and she couldn’t read a note of music, Billie Holiday is hailed as one of the greatest musicians of all time for her interpretations of the songs. She was a storyteller. In life she was both tragic and triumphant. And her music has this vibrancy, this truth that makes her effective and memorable.
Her childhood was brutal, and by 14 she was jailed for prostitution. As a teenager she went to an audition intending to dance for money, but at the last minute the piano player suggested she try singing, and she brought the house down. She cut her first record with Benny Goodman at age 18. Throughout her life, Billie battled with heroin addiction and depression. And the media exploited her as a trainwreck. But it’s evident that Billie Holiday was intelligent, strong and sensitive. She kept going despite everything and recorded up until her death at age 44. She died handcuffed to a hospital bed, under arrest for narcotics possession. In her heyday she wore long white gowns and a gardenia in her hair. She’s quoted as saying “I’d wear the white dresses, and the white gardenia in my hair, and then they would bring me the white junk.”
Whether you view her as tragic or triumphant, Billie Holiday’s music is timeless and will live long past the rest of us.
KEXP Documentaries are created by Michele Myers. With assistance from John Felthous, Tiffany Grobelski, Abe Beeson and Mary Janisch. Executive Producer is Kevin Cole. If you would like to follow along more closely in the creation of these radio stories, we post research materials, songs and videos on our Facebook page and on Twitter.