A Holiday for the Holidays

billy-holiday.jpg

You’ve got to have something to eat and a little love in your life before you can hold still for any damn body’s sermon on how to behave.”

Billie, that is….

Billie Holiday’s grandfather was one of 17 children of a black Virginia slave and a white Irish plantation owner. Her mother was only 13 when she was born.

The future “Lady Day” first heard the music of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith on a Victrola at Alice Dean’s, the Baltimore “house of ill repute” where she ran errands and scrubbed floors as a young girl. She made her singing debut in obscure Harlem nightclubs (borrowing her professional name from screen star Billie Dove), then toured with Count Basie and Artie Shaw before going solo. Benny Goodman dragged the frightened singer to her first studio session. Between 1933 and 1944, she recorded over 200 “sides,” but she never received royalties for any of them.

Despite a lack of technical training, Holiday’s unique diction, inimitable phrasing and acute dramatic intensity made her the outstanding jazz singer of her day. White gardenias, worn in her hair, became her trademark.

“Singing songs like the ‘The Man I Love’ or ‘Porgy’ is no more work than sitting down and eating Chinese roast duck, and I love roast duck,” she wrote in her autobiography. “I’ve lived songs like that.” Her own compositions included “God Bless the Child,” espousing the virtues of financial independence and “Don’t Explain,” lament on infidelity.

Billie Holiday, a musical legend still popular today, died an untimely death at the age of 44.

This hits home for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that I turned 44 a couple weeks ago.

Luckily, I gave up my wild lifestyle in 1995, so any untimely deaths should not be blamed on drugs, alcohol, rock n roll or even jazz.

Regardless, Billy should be an inspiration for anyone who reveres the ecstatic in life, no matter how wounded, no matter how desperate, no matter how bittersweet. She captured the exquisite essence of human contradiction, and she did so with a voice that was extremely easy on the ears. She was the real deal.

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2 thoughts on “A Holiday for the Holidays

  1. Hawk Sr says:

    The human survivors like Billie are my heroes, even the ones who don’t make the newspapers or magazines. I live with them every day. People whose life situations did not allow formal schooling, people whose families and communities are highly dysfunctional because of prevailing conditions for which they had no responsibility. People who figure out their reality and find a way to overcome — not with perfection, but yes, to a sufficient degree to experience their own creativity and provide some model of hope for those who follow.

    “She was the real deal.” Yes. And thus, one of my heroes.

  2. adreampuppet says:

    Wonderful comment, Hawk. She really does let us know that she’s not perfect, but she’s not hiding, either. She reminds us that life is meant for living, for experiencing, for tasting with all the gusto we can muster. I loved her the first time I ever heard her voice.

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