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The Friday Fierceness: Angel of Harlem Edition | Manolo for the Big Girl

The Friday Fierceness: Angel of Harlem Edition

Here is a two word test:

“Strange Fruit”

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.

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“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.”

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“Dope never helped anybody sing better or play music better or do anything better. All dope can do for you is kill you – and kill you the long, slow, hard way.”

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“If I’m going to sing like someone else, then I don’t need to sing at all. ”

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“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.”

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“Somebody once said we never know what is enough until we know what’s more than enough.”

11 Responses to “The Friday Fierceness: Angel of Harlem Edition”

  1. Twistie July 17, 2009 at 10:42 am #

    Oh man, Plummy, I remember the first time I heard Lady Day. I was mesmerized. Even as a kid I knew that in technical terms she wasn’t all that and a bag of chips, but who cares when there’s so much artistry and soul?

    A rainy day, a little Lady Day, a good book, and a cat perched on my lap is my idea of heaven on earth.

  2. gina July 17, 2009 at 12:02 pm #

    A (very wise) friend hipped me to Billie when I was in high school. We sat on her bed and listened to her mom’s CD of greatest hits. When Strange Fruit came on, I could hardly sit still for wanting to cry and shiver and run out of the room, it was so haunting. I went out and bought that CD the same day. But I still can’t listen to SF all the way through. “You go to my head” and “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” are my favorites.

  3. Beth C. July 17, 2009 at 1:48 pm #

    Lady Day. Man, there is no one else. Not just her voice, everything. I remember seeing a documentary on the Savoy and someone told a story about Billie Holiday. She was at the club wearing her very first, brand new, white fur coat. Two sailors on leave started to hassle her and one of them put his cigarette out on the coat. She followed them outside and beat both of them to a pulp with her bare fists. One of them ended up in the hospital. I just loved her more after hearing that, she was quite a woman.

  4. SusanC July 17, 2009 at 3:54 pm #

    She was the first singer of that genre that I feel in love with, plain and simple. And nothing beats singing along with her “I gotta right to sing the blues” when you are feeling down.

  5. Lisa July 17, 2009 at 10:50 pm #

    One of the things I forget sometimes is just how very, very , very pretty she was, in addition to her talent. Look at her with her flowers in her hair!

  6. megaera July 18, 2009 at 1:54 am #

    I will not lie. I, who as a child laughed through Freddy and Jason movies, was creeped to the nth degree by this song. (I should point out for fairness’ sake, that I also heard this song as a child.) Her phrasing, alternately halting and crooning, over those graphic lyrics managed to keep me up at night for a lot longer than any slasher flick could ever hope to do. About the only thing I can think of that gave me such severe shivers was a weird comic about the Holocaust (no not Maus) where the Nazi’s were dancing with lampshade made from human skin that I found in the Smithsonian Collection of Comics book.

  7. theDiva July 18, 2009 at 8:01 am #

    Excellent post, Plummy. Lady was simply the best.

  8. raincoaster July 20, 2009 at 12:25 am #

    I’ll retell here something I posted on Facebook.

    One night, decades ago, a writer (I think it was Fran Lebowitz) was in Harlem watching Billie Holiday perform at a club. Some guy was hassling her, the writer, for being white and being in that part of town, calling her names. Lady Day stopped the show and said, “No, leave that woman alone. She is my sister. She can be raped.”

  9. theDiva July 20, 2009 at 11:59 am #

    If it was Fran, she was no older than 9 at the time.

  10. theDiva July 20, 2009 at 2:20 pm #

    Also, it would have had to happened before ’47, because that’s about when she lost her cabaret card.

  11. Danielle August 14, 2009 at 4:35 pm #

    Also a big fan of Billie. Her instrument has limited in the technical sense but her ability to emote and make your feel something is matched by few. One of my vocal role models.