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Billie Holiday....Sad Am I


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'Sad am I'

Billie Holiday is often thought of as a victim of drink and drugs. But, as Julia Blackburn reveals, there was far more to the downfall of Lady Day

Saturday March 26, 2005

The Guardian

If Billie Holiday had been able to steer her way past the troubles of her middle life into old age, then she would be celebrating her 90th birthday this April. Imagine her giving one last performance. Imagine the huge roaring wave of pleasure from a packed audience, in the moment when the First Lady of Jazz steps on to the stage.

What might she be wearing? Perhaps a white evening gown, with the trademark white flowers perched like butterflies on the side of her head and a necklace of real diamonds around her neck, because surely by now she would be able to afford real diamonds and not the tatty paste jewellery she became used to during the years when things were so tough. But I think it's more likely she'd be dressed all in black, hardly a trace of make up, her grey hair pulled back to reveal the stark iconography of her face.

Here she comes. Her arms bent at the elbows and her right hand already clenched into a fist, ready to punch the air when the music begins. She walks slowly, with what the comedian Stump Daddy called "that tall regal sweep thing in her walk". As he said: "Lady was never in a hurry about getting there to do a song. She was never boisterous, she never rushed."

She approaches the microphone and the pink beam of a small pin light follows her through the surrounding darkness because "she couldn't stand to look at the people. But when there's a pin on her, she can't see them and there's not really an audience, it's like a living room."

The pianist Bobby Tucker, one of the few from the old days who is still alive, was very aware of Holiday's fears. He remembered the occasion when she was being presented with an award and the house lights were suddenly turned on and "she literally froze, her voice was shaking, she was trembling". This fear was always visible to the people who knew her well, but it was part of her strength, part of the energy of concentration. She said: "The time when you go out there on stage and you're not nervous, that's when you're gonna stink."

The music starts and now what happens? Is she going to make a fool of herself with that cracked voice staggering towards the notes it cannot reach, or will she somehow be able to hold the crowd in what Stump Daddy called her Lady Day magic bag?

There are some people who believe that Holiday did all her best work during the Columbia years between 1937 and 1944, when her songs were bursting with a wild joy and defiance. Holiday, however, saw it differently. She knew she had never had a good voice in the sense that Ella Fitzgerald had a good voice, but she also knew that she could do lyrics and that was what mattered. And the more life she had lived the deeper and more powerful those lyrics became. "I've got stories about music," she'd say, "and that means I can sing the top of a song." When she was in Harlem's Metropolitan Hospital, with only a few more days to live, she said with her usual laconic humour, and no trace of irony: "I'm in the best voice in my life!" There was even talk of making a record there, bringing in all the equipment and calling it "Lady at the Met".

Her friend Greer Johnson, a white theatre critic who first got to know her in 1943, was a great champion of the way Holiday's sound developed over the years. He'd listen to the late recordings and at first he'd think: "She's lost it." Then he'd listen three more times and he'd know you couldn't hear it any other way.

"This woman was singing the ultimate possibility in the jazz lyric," he said. "She was going into a kind of freedom. The pain is what makes Billie Holiday great, is what makes Lotte Lenya great, is what makes Marlene Dietrich great. It is beside the point if they are in a top-healthy vocal state, because musically the statement that is being made is the ultimate statement... Boy am I sounding pretentious." With that he sighs and pours himself another drink.

In November 1956, Holiday was interviewed by Tex McCreary. She sounds heavy with alcohol and whatever drugs she might have been using, and the conversation is slow and awkward. The interviewer obviously feels it's no good going on with the questions and she was in no fit state to sing, but he has a sudden inspiration. He asks her to recite one of her songs. "I want you to close your eyes, Billie," he says, "and speak the words like a poet. What about 'Yesterdays'?"

Without a moment's hesitation she does what she has been told to do. She recites the words with an almost unbearable languor, but with all the power and authority of a great theatrical monologue. Her voice sounds like a song, so musical in its resonances that as you listen you seem to hear a band playing with her:

Yesterdays,

Days I knew as happy sweet,

Sequestered days,

Olden days, golden days,

Days of mad romance and love.

Then gay youth was mine,

Truth was mine,

Joyous free and flaming life,

Forsooth were mine.

Sad am I, glad am I,

For today I'm dreaming of,

Yesterdays...

So that is the sort of performance she might have given if she could appear before us now, and you cannot doubt that everyone listening to her would hold their breath in awe and delight. To return to Stump Daddy: "Lady Day was a tremendous mental musical being. She knew about the creative value of music. She'd come out of the sky with something and she could crack your skull with a riff."

My book on Billie Holiday is based on a collection of tape-recorded interviews made in the 1970s with people who knew her. Initially, I thought I was going to write a biography, but what I have ended up with is something more like a documentary. Instead of trying to produce a unified account of Holiday's life, I have let some of the most interesting or eloquent speakers tell their own story of who she was and what she meant to them. As I worked with these interviews I began to see a very different person to the drug-riddled victim of her own vices so often and so flippantly described on CD covers and elsewhere.

Certainly Holiday took drugs, as did many other musicians at that time. She started with marijuana in the days when it was legal and alcohol was prohibited, and for a while she and Louis Armstrong were known as the King and Queen of the Marijuana People. She could "drink enough for 10 men"; she mixed the booze with pills and cocaine and eventually, around 1943, with heroin, although towards the end of her life she tended to rely on alcohol when she needed to drown her sorrows. As her pianist Mal Waldran explained: "Faults? Well of course she drank too much... she wouldn't stop drinking and she never did really stick the dope habit. But Lady Day had an awful lot to forget."

There were many things Holiday wanted to forget, but undoubtedly the most traumatic was the experience of imprisonment. At the age of nine, she had been sent to a reform school; at 15, she was incarcerated on New York's notorious Welfare Island; and then in 1947, when her career was at its peak, she was arrested on a drugs charge and sentenced to a year and a day at a Federal Reformatory for Women in West Virginia.

According to two narcotic agents involved in the case, Holiday was "chosen" simply because she was a "very attractive customer" whose arrest (but not her singing) got her into all the white tabloid newspapers and provided an organisation like the Federal Bureau of Narcotics with exactly the kind of law enforcement publicity they were looking for. Apparently the drugs were not really the problem, but there was anger about her insistence on singing the anti-lynching song "Strange Fruit", even when she was warned against it, and there was anger at the way she mixed so easily with white people as well as black, and the way she "dragged her mink around" as if she didn't care about its value.

That first arrest was followed by several others, including the last and most horrific one in 1959, when Holiday was in hospital. Throughout those years she was followed by the FBI, or other agents, wherever she went. They would be there in the crowd, heckling her. They would come backstage and threaten to make an arrest and they would spread rumours at the clubs where she played and the hotels where she stayed. She told the trumpeter Buck Clayton how "young ones with crew cuts... would come up to her and say, 'OK, Lady Day, we know everything you're doing and when the time comes, we're going to get you!'"

After her release from prison in 1948, Holiday was denied her Cabaret Card and in spite of repeated applications, she never got it back. This meant that for the last 11 years of her life, she was not able to sing in any New York club that held a liquor licence. She lost the main source of her income and was forced to go on endless, gruelling tours in a succession of "little stinking joints". As she said in 1957: "I'm allowed to sing in a park where children can hear me, but I'm banned from nightclubs. I think it's pretty silly... I'm tired of travelling. It would be nice to settle down in New York for a while."

In spite of the complexity and struggle of her life, Holiday was not prone to self-pity and she hated the public image that had grown up around her, especially after the publication of her ghostwritten autobiography Lady Sings the Blues, which used what the publishers called "the gimmick" of narcotics to sell more books. Right until the end she remained an absolute professional in her work. You have only to see her singing "Fine and Mellow" in the 1957 TV film The Sound of Jazz to realise how deeply she was respected by her fellow musicians. And if you listen to Lady in Satin, it is worth remembering that all those tracks were recorded in three consecutive evenings with no rehearsals and Holiday was singing many of the songs, including the wonderful "You've Changed", for the first time in her life.

I'll give the last word to pianist and composer Irene Kitchings, who had known Holiday since 1934. She said very simply: "Once Billie got big, it didn't matter to her. All she wanted was to have some decent music to accompany her and the people to be quiet and listen to her sing... Singing was all she knew how to do. That's all that made her real happy."

http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/features/st...1445813,00.html

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excellent article...a great performer...her version of the nat king cole/irving mills anti-heroin classic " straighten up and fly right " blows me away......heroin was the drug of choice amongst a lot of negro and white jazz/blues musos in those days...

( Raise Up Off Me: A Portrait of Hampton Hawes ).....a very good read on this subject......

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detai...440129?v=glance .......

......billie was one mighty tough gal too..she didn`t have much choice.....not a lot of them did......

i firmly believe......that there always has been/is an agenda by the U.S establishment/government to, at any given time, target high profile blacks who have been successful in any field of entertainment or business, and whose attitudes and actions (be they social or political) have become highly visible to the mainstream american public.....and therefore may, because of that perfomers popularity, become somewhat acceptable or " normalised " to that public.......you know the sort of thing...hey boy....don`t get too uppity.....this great country gave you opportunity and made you what you are...cross the line and we will destroy you......it keeps everyone in line......

" According to two narcotic agents involved in the case, Holiday was "chosen" simply because she was a "very attractive customer" whose arrest (but not her singing) got her into all the white tabloid newspapers and provided an organisation like the Federal Bureau of Narcotics with exactly the kind of law enforcement publicity they were looking for. Apparently the drugs were not really the problem, but there was anger about her insistence on singing the anti-lynching song "Strange Fruit", even when she was warned against it, and there was anger at the way she mixed so easily with white people as well as black, and the way she "dragged her mink around" as if she didn't care about its value. ".....i rest my case.... :bigsmile:

http://www.soulwalking.co.uk/Billie%20Holiday.html

Straighten Up And Fly Right

(Words and Music by Nat King Cole and Irving Mills)

Sung by : Billie Holliday

The buzzard took the monkey for a ride in the air

The monkey thought that everything was on the square

The buzzard tried to throw the monkey off his back

The monkey grabbed his neck and said "Now listen, Jack"

"Straighten up and fly right"

"Straighten up and fly right"

"Straighten up and fly right"

"Cool down, papa, don't you blow your top."

"Ain't no use in jivin' "

"What's the use in dabbin' "

"Straighten up and fly right"

"Cool down, papa, don't you blow your top."

The buzzard told the monkey "You're chokin' me"

"Release your hold and I'll set you free"

The monkey looked the buzzard right dead in the eye and said

"Your story's fetchin' but it sounds like a lie"

"Straighten up and fly right

Straighten up and do right

Straighten up and fly right

Cool down, papa, don't you blow your top."

(instrumental interlude)

"Straighten up and fly right

Straighten up and do right

Straighten up and fly right

Cool down, papa, don't you blow your top."

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Strange Fruit

Sung by Billie Holliday..

-- Music and lyrics by Lewis Allan, copyright 1940

Although Holiday's producer, John Hammond, didn't want her to sing it because of the strong political message, Holiday mesmerized audiences with her rendition, often bringing them to tears. The song also made enemies for Holiday, and the singer believed it led federal prosecutors to target her for harassment. Very few other performers sang it until the late 1950s and 1960s, when Josh White and Nina Simone began including it in their acts.

The schoolteacher who penned Strange Fruit under the pseudonym Lewis Allen was named Abel Meeropol, the same Abe Meeropol who adopted the two sons of "atom bomb spies" Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after their 1953 execution...

STRANGE FRUIT

Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black body swinging in the southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth

Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh

And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck

For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop.

It sometimes happens that a person makes a tremendous contribution to history, morality, and the arts even though that person is perceived by the public as the least likely to do so. Billie Holiday, an entertainer noted for classic jazz songs and fighting a losing battle against heroin and alcohol addiction, used her haunting song Strange Fruit to courageously crusade against the mostly southern practice of denying black men a fair trial and then lynching them. Two decades before We Shall Overcome became the anthem of the 1960s civil rights movement Billie Holliday`s performance of Strange Fruit was such a powerful elegy of moral outrage against lynching that Time Magazine named it "The Best Song of the Century."

One audience member claimed that "when Billie sang it (Strange Fruit), you feel you are at the foot of the tree."

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good stuff koop

I'll just put some Billie Holiday to make me wake up better

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  That first arrest was followed by several others, including the last and most horrific one in 1959, when Holiday was in hospital. Throughout those years she was followed by the FBI, or other agents, wherever she went. They would be there in the crowd, heckling her. They would come backstage and threaten to make an arrest and they would spread rumours at the clubs where she played and the hotels where she stayed. She told the trumpeter Buck Clayton how "young ones with crew cuts... would come up to her and say, 'OK, Lady Day, we know everything you're doing and when the time comes, we're going to get you!'"

Creeps. I wonder what its like to have a scummy job like that. Ihope they are all rotting in hell now :reallymad:

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great stuff, y'all (koop, kiwi). i adore billie holliday and have since about 12 or 13. this:

Holiday was "chosen" simply because she was a "very attractive customer" whose arrest (but not her singing) got her into all the white tabloid newspapers and provided an organisation like the Federal Bureau of Narcotics with exactly the kind of law enforcement publicity they were looking for. Apparently the drugs were not really the problem, but there was anger about her insistence on singing the anti-lynching song "Strange Fruit", even when she was warned against it, and there was anger at the way she mixed so easily with white people as well as black, and the way she "dragged her mink around" as if she didn't care about its value.
is just too sad.

one of my favorite places in spanish harlem, i think it's off the corner of 5th ave and 100th street, has a painted mural of her by graffitti artists in the 60s, i think. i wish i had a photo.

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one of my favorite places in spanish harlem, i think it's off the corner of 5th ave and 100th street, has a painted mural of her by graffitti artists in the 60s, i think. i wish i had a photo.

:bigsmile:

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:bigsmile:

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:bigsmile:

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:bigsmile:

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