If everybody lived to 101, Billie Holiday would be alive today. That’s kind of a trip, right? You see all these 100-some-odd year old folks in the news. They’re Bille Holiday’s contemporaries and Billie Holiday had so much more to say when she died in the Metropolitan Hospital in NY on July 17, 1959, after being arrested in the same hospital room weeks before.
When I was about 13 years old, my mother told me that Billie Holiday, Lady Day, was one of her favorite singers. But Cass Elliot, “Mama Cass” was another one along with Carol King, so I never was too sure what that really meant. One day in a record store I found a compilation LP and bought it for my mother. I listened to it, and listened to it, but never really felt like I got what Lady Day meant to my mother. My mother’s life was not tragic like Lady Day’s but really what child really knows the darkest night of their mother. That’s not the stuff mothers easily reveal, at least not mothers like mine, and not at that time. Maybe mothers blog about it now.
Lady Day sang like no one else ever had before. In 1958, Frank Sinatra said of her: “With few exceptions, every major pop singer in the U.S. during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius. It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me. Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years.” That was Frank Sinatra quoted in “Ebony” magazine.
While always loved by those who love music, Billie Holiday has at times almost been dismissed as a sad, hopeless figure and a drug addict in American culture. One can barely link Billie Holiday without linking heroin. Perhaps it is her ability to express sadness and hopelessness with voice and song-writing, and her dependency on heroin that play such a large role in defining this unique talent, this stellar African-American talent. On this third day of Black History Month, I honor Billie Holiday.