One hundred years ago today - April 7th 1915 - Billie Holiday was born in Philadelphia. Unlike Frank Sinatra, whose centenary we also mark this year, she did not enjoy a six-decade career, wrapping up with sell-out stadium tours and Number One celebrity duet CDs with Bono and Jimmy Buffett. Miss Holiday's life was short and turbulent, fading out just as Sinatra, her almost exact contemporary, was getting into his stride. The end came on July 17th 1959 in the Metropolitan Hospital in New York. Billie had been admitted at the end of May, for liver and heart disease, as well as a few other ravages to which the typical self-destructive artist is prone and which a sentimental public tends to lump under the catch-all category of "the price of fame". When they found out she was in the hospital, the NYPD busted her for possession of narcotics and installed guards in her room lest she flee jurisdiction. A few hours before her death, the cops were ejected from her bedside by court order - and then she did, indeed, flee jurisdiction, permanently. She was 44 and died with 70 cents in her bank account.
She went out more or less the way she came in a century ago today. Her autobiography, Lady Sings The Blues, published three years earlier, has one of the great opening sentences of any celeb memoir:
Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was sixteen, and I was three.
Close enough. In fact, Mom and Pop never married, never even lived together. And, when Billie was three, "Pop" (not a name she ever called him) was 20, and Mom was 22. There are at least two versions of every episode in Lady Day's life. I've heard a lot of them over the years, from Artie Shaw, Toots Camarata and many others, and the narrative only gets more dispiriting with the inconsistencies. In the last 50 years, it's withered to a grim shorthand - loveless childhood, rape, prostitution, heroin, racism, and a signature song about a lynching:
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...
A lot of people think Billie Holiday wrote it. In fact, it's by "Lewis Allen", the pseudonym of Abel Meeropol, a Bronx schoolteacher and union activist who went on to adopt the kids of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. (He also wrote "The House I Live In", a Sinatra staple for half-a-century.) Man cannot live on "Strange Fruit" alone, and nor can women vocalists. But the dramatic intensity seems appropriate to the narrative precis, and confirms Holiday's status as, in the critic Leonard Feather's phrase, a "messenger of misery". She wasn't, not if you've ever heard "What A Little Moonlight Can Do". The Feathers knew the real Billie well enough to weary of this bleak reductio. A few years back, his daughter, the singer Lorraine Feather (who happens to be Miss Holiday's goddaughter) sent out a Christmas card showing Billie on skis, at a Swiss resort, beaming in the snow. It wasn't all drugs'n'lynchings.
So let's put aside the biography and turn to the music. Lady Sings The Blues, says the book title, and that ghastly film with Holiday played by the insipid Diana Ross. Actually, she rarely sang the blues, either in the very specific sense of bona fide twelve-bar blues or in the more general sense of big-voiced plaintive ululating. Instead, she sang mainstream American popular song in a minimalist style that eschews almost all the devices we associate with "blues" singing, from gospel-style shouting to mountains of melismas. It's striking that almost every contemporary female singer professes to admire Billie Holiday, yet apparently without noticing that they do everything she doesn't. There's none of that hey-look-ma-I'm-emoting bellowing. She's raw, she's real, using a small voice to devastating effect.
In the early Thirties, she was the first female singer to figure out, as Bing Crosby had done, that the microphone changed everything. In turn, she became a key influence on Frank Sinatra. People are sometimes a little befuddled by that, but it's true: In 1939, Down Beat magazine ran a great photo of the young Frank listening rapt to Miss Holiday at the Off-Beat in Chicago. He first saw her "standing under a spotlight in a 52nd Street jazz spot" - the Uptown House. "I was dazzled by her soft, breathtaking beauty," said Sinatra. But "influence"? He doesn't sound like her, does he? No, but he learned a lot about phrasing and nuance from her, and you can hear it in a lot of records, from his 1945 "You Go To My Head" to the Holidayesque intonation on "then" in his 1961 recording of "Yesterdays". Everyone acknowledges her greatness today, but Frank did it when she was around to hear it. A year before her death, he told Britain's Melody Maker:
Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular music in the last 20 years. With a few exceptions, every major pop singer in the United States during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius.
She had a narrower vocal range than Sinatra, and she abused her voice, and there are times when it doesn't seem to have anything to do with whatever arrangement it's careering on top of. Even hardcore fans are snooty about her records, eschewing this or that phase of her oeuvre for one supposedly more authentic. But over the years I started to notice something: Sometimes the voice is shot and the tone's unpleasant and the rasp is out of control, but I've never heard a Billie Holiday record where I disagreed with her phrasing. Even when everything else slides, her sense of where to breathe, what to inflect, how to tell the story, is absolutely superb. That's what Sinatra heard, and that's what he learned from. It helped that they liked a lot of the same songs. Not so much the Cole Porters and Irving Berlins, but the stuff that needed just a little extra push to get it out there - "I Wished On The Moon", "I Cried For You", "She's/He's Funny That Way", "I Cover The Waterfront"...
A couple of days back, we discussed Sinatra the songwriter, and saluted Billie Holiday's record of "I'm A Fool To Want You", a searing ballad co-composed by Frank that could almost have been written with her in mind. So let's return the compliment and consider Billie Holiday the songwriter. She left two songs in the repertoire, both born from autobiography and both composed with Arthur Herzog Jr. When a singer writes a number with a songwriter, it's natural to figure the latter did most of the heavy lifting. But Herzog's only hits were written with Holiday, and it seems reasonable to assume her half of the credit was well earned. Their first big collaboration was "God Bless The Child":
Them that's got shall get
Them that's not shall lose
So the Bible said
And it still is news...
They wrote it in 1939, Billie Holiday released her record in 1942, Frankie Laine did it a few years later, and, in the decades since her death, it's been sung by everyone from Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder to Richie Havens and Lisa from "The Simpsons". But I confess I've always preferred Herzog and Holiday's second song, written a couple of years later and, like the first, from personal experience. According to Holiday, "God Bless The Child" arose from a dispute with her mother over money. At one point during their argument, she snapped, "God bless the child that's got his own" - and hey presto, a song was (eventually) born. If Mom "inspired" one number, for the second Billie has her husband to thank. In 1941, she married Jimmy Monroe, the brother of an old employer of hers, and they settled down, if you can call it that, in Los Angeles. One night, he came home, and she noticed he had lipstick on his collar.
"I saw the lipstick," she said. "He saw I saw it and he started explaining and explaining. I could stand anything but that. Lying to me was worse than anything he could have done with any bitch."
She cut him off in mid-flow. "Take a bath, man," she told him. "Don't explain." So Jimmy took her advice. But the words "Don't explain" somehow lodged in her head and declined to leave. "I had to get it out of my system some way," she recalled later. "The more I thought about it, it changed from an ugly scene to a sad song. Soon I was singing phrases to myself":
Hush now, Don't Explain
Just say you'll remain
I'm glad you're bad
A couple of days later, she hooked up with Arthur Herzog Jr round a piano and sang what she had. He played back the tune, made a few changes here and there, "softening it up just a little", as Holiday saw it. But not that much:
My love, Don't Explain
What is there to gain?
Skip that lipstick
She kept it a secret the best part of half a decade. In November 1944, she went into the studio with Toots Camarata and recorded two versions. Nine months later, she went back and re-recorded the Camarata arrangement with Bob Haggart's orchestra:
Hush now, Don't Explain
You're my love and pain
My life's your love
She nailed the song - and divorced Jimmy Monroe.
Fifteen years on, as Billie Holiday lay dying in the Metropolitan Hospital, Connie Francis was in the Top Five with a bouncy-bouncy rock'n'roll treatment of the same theme:
Lipstick On Your Collar
Said you were untrue
Bet your bottom dollar
You and I are through
'Cause Lipstick On Your Collar
Told a tale on you!
I wonder if the dying Holiday ever heard it. Miss Francis' take is less morally problematic. Lipstick on your collar? Scram, pal! But I wonder if the Holiday accommodation doesn't happen just as often:
Try to hear folks chatter
And I know you cheat
Right or wrong, don't matter
When you're with me, sweet...
The account of its origin above is too vivid. You couldn't put "Take a bath, man" in a ballad like "Don't Explain": It's too real. The rank sweat of an enseamed bed hangs over the line. But in an almost throwaway conversational melody she gets in all the essentials - and that "Hush now" up at the front is unlike any other lyric opening. I always liked "Don't Explain" as a title because, aside from anything else, it's good advice for songwriters: In a song, you don't explain love, you express it. And that's what Billie Holiday did. "This is one song I couldn't sing," she said, "without feeling every minute of it."
In her prose poem, Don't Explain: A Song Of Billie Holiday, Alexis De Veaux writes:
Pain can be washed out with a song
Pain can become jazz digested and transformed...
"Jazz-digested" is a good way of putting it. In a too short life, pain consumed Billie Holiday, and jazz in turn digested and transformed her pain. She was a great jazz singer and, as Sinatra recognized, a consummate pop singer. Don't try to explain her; listen to her.