Billie Holiday died with just $50 to her name taped to her thigh, but on the 100th anniversary of her birth the jazz legend is enjoying a renaissance as a trailblazer for generations of singers.
Holiday was broken down by heroin use, police harassment and a husband who would beat her so severely she would tape her ribs before concerts.
When her body gave way at age 44 in 1959, she was under arrest in her hospital bed for narcotics and her savings consisted of the $50 slipped by a reporter who wanted a deathbed interview.
But ahead of the centennial of her birth on April 7, a more complete picture of Holiday is emerging as artists acknowledge her foibles yet hail her not only for her ineffable voice but for her dignified stance against racism.
Author Lanie Robertson has seen the changes in perceptions first-hand. His play “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” which depicts Holiday looking back at her life before a meager crowd at one of her final shows, premiered in 1986 but enjoyed a popular revival last year on Broadway starring Audra McDonald that was later turned into an HBO television production.
“In 1986 when the play was produced, Billie Holiday was disparaged by a very large segment of the African American population — she was a terrible role model, she was a drug addict, she was an alcoholic, she slept around, she was not a ‘good woman,'” Robertson said.
“Last year there was a total turnaround in society’s view of Billie Holiday. She was a fighter for civil rights, she was someone who put up with the staunchest, meanest kinds of prejudice and racial bigotry, which probably cut her life short by decades,” he said.
“I think she is now a symbol of the African American who fights and stands up for her rights, and is seen as a forerunner of that.”
– Ultimate protest song –
Holiday — nicknamed “Lady Day” — endured racial slights even at home in New York, where a singer with a global reputation would be asked to take service elevators at expensive hotels.
In 1939, Holiday debuted one of musical history’s great protest songs, “Strange Fruit,” a searing denunciation of the lynchings of African Americans in the South — land of the “scent of magnolia sweet and fresh / and the sudden smell of burning flesh.”
Holiday’s label, Columbia, initially refused to release the song out of fear of upsetting the Southern market and the singer quickly came under greater scrutiny from federal narcotics investigators.
“When she sang it, you could pretty much hear a pin drop. The audience was in dead silence,” said Mikki Shepard, executive producer of the Apollo Theater where Holiday performed the song.
The Apollo, the celebrated and racially integrated jazz venue in Harlem, was one of the few places where Holiday could perform late in her career along with Carnegie Hall, as a new cabaret licensing system shut her out of most clubs on account of her character.
The Apollo will celebrate the centennial with a series of events including a tribute concert by Cassandra Wilson, the Grammy-winning singer who is also releasing an album of Holiday covers.
Columbia has put out “The Centennial Collection,” a CD with 20 of Holiday’s most influential songs including “Summertime,” “All of Me” and “Strange Fruit.”
The pianist Lara Downes in turn has performed “A Billie Holiday Songbook,” which takes inspiration not only from Lady Day’s music but her capacity for improvisation.
– An authentic voice –
Holiday, born in Philadelphia to a house cleaner mother and an absent father, never had a formal musical education.
In a memoir that was explosive at the time, Holiday said that she learned jazz when she ran errands in brothels as a child.
Holiday had numerous outside influences, notably Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, but built her reputation as perhaps the greatest-ever jazz singer through her inner passion and a vocal style that was at once emotive and rugged.
A vast array of singers have taken inspiration from Holiday’s music and style including Diana Ross — who played her in the 1972 film “Lady Sings the Blues” — to Annie Lennox and the late Amy Winehouse.
Ahead of the centennial, fans have flocked to her simple grave in The Bronx where on a recent day an empty bottle of Tanqueray stood as an offering.
But how would Holiday have fared in the 21st century? White audiences are far more accepting of African American artists, but could Holiday have survived a world where an artist’s every mishap is shared by social media?
Shepard said that Holiday, unlike modern stars, had few handlers to protect her — but that her raw power also brought her closer to audiences.
“Here was an artist at the top of her game but who was suffering, just as they were suffering,” Shepard said.
“I think she connected with people because she was real. She was authentic.”