April 07, 2016
Philadelphia is proud to call itself the birthplace of Billie Holiday, one of the all-time greatest jazz singers. (She may not have been just as proud of the city — she wrote in her autobiography that she was born in Baltimore — but she's still part of the Philadelphia Music Alliance's Walk of Fame.)
While she died at just 44 years of age, fans across the world mark Thursday as her 101st birthday. Her soulful voice slips past any attempts at description, so it's simpler to just present a sample of some of her most well-known songs, and let the music speak for itself.
While best known for her bittersweet blues, Holiday could croon happy tunes just as masterfully. "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" is downright peppy. She recorded the song in 1935 with Teddy Wilson on piano and Benny Goodman on clarinet. As the Jazz.com blog put it: "That session was never, never surpassed. It may have been equaled, but never surpassed."
Holiday co-wrote this song and recorded it in 1936 with the Bunny Berigan Orchestra. She struggled with abusive relationships throughout her life, but in this song, at least, she declares that she's going to let her good-for-nothing man go.
This chilling 1939 song evokes the tragedy of Southern lynchings. The topic was controversial enough to get the song banned on the radio, and one biography notes that Holiday had to find a different record company to record the single because her usual label wasn't interested. Nevertheless, "Strange Fruit" defined Holiday's legacy more than any other song.
1941 could be described as the height of Holiday's career. She had a hit with this song, which she co-wrote with Arthur Herzog Jr., and also recorded the iconic "Gloomy Sunday." Unfortunately, it was also the year when she began her short-lived, unhappy marriage to James Monroe and took up smoking opium, a habit that would eventually lead to her heroin addiction.
Gloomy may be an understatement. Numerous urban legends have sprung up that claim this song was banned in various countries after being connected to a rash of suicides. As melancholy as the song is, however, Holiday's incredible voice has no doubt soothed more hearts in pain than it has troubled.