Here is a two word test:
If the hairs rose up on your arms, then you know what I’m talking about. If you don’t, I want you to stop immediately and watch this video. I’ll wait.
Billie Holiday died 50 years ago today at the age of 44 of cirrhosis of the liver. She was not the most technically gifted musician, she didn’t have much raw power in her voice and if her vocal range hit much more than an octave no one would have been more surprised than she, but Lady Day with her slurred speech (booze, then drugs) and raspy growl recorded some of the most moving, timeless works in the modern songbook, but even if her entire career began and ended with “Strange Fruit” –which was named Song of the Century by Time Magazine in 1999– she would have been a legend.
No one, maybe Sinatra, changed the pop vernacular the way Holiday did. She was, for all intents and purposes, something new under the sun. Her phrasing changed the way song were sung.
Stick a gardenia in your hair, pour yourself a drink, pop on a little Lady (if you don’t own at least one of her albums, you may not technically be a human) and –if you’re so inclined– listen to Billy Crystal’s (yes THAT Billy Crystal, his uncle owned the record label that released “Strange Fruit” and Billy saw his first movie, “Shane” while sitting on Lady Day’s lap) excellent BBC radio program on the legendary songstress.
“In this country, don’t forget, a habit is no damn private hell. There’s no solitary confinement outside of jail. A habit is hell for those you love. And in this country it’s the worst kind of hell for those who love you.”