Remembering Billie Holiday
John Timpane, Inquirer Staff Writer
Posted: Sunday, March 29, 2015, 3:01 AM
One hundred years ago, on April 7, 1915, one of the 20th century's greatest singers was born in Philadelphia.
The name on the birth certificate was Elinore Harris, born in Philadelphia General Hospital on Curie Boulevard in West Philadelphia, a tax-supported municipal hospital that ministered mostly to indigent patients.
She became known to the world as Billie Holiday, a transcendent singer with a tragic American life. Fans of jazz – of music, period – will observe her centenary worldwide.
Lady Day's story often is told in terms of Baltimore (where she endured a young womanhood of physical and sexual abuse) and New York (where she was discovered and rose to world stardom). But for her, Philadelphia was a town of beginnings, betrayals, and second chances.
"Interestingly enough, she had good things to say about Philly, better than other cities," says her Philadelphia-born biographer John Szwed, whose Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth comes out Tuesday. "She played frequently at the Earle Theatre and the Showboat, and when she lost her cabaret card after her drug conviction in 1947, and couldn't get gigs in New York, performing in Philly became important to her livelihood."
A historical marker stands at the site of the Showboat, which was in the basement of the old Douglass Hotel at Broad and Lombard Streets. That's where Holiday often played – and, as the sign puts it, "often lived."
Faye Anderson, proprietor of All That Philly Jazz (phillyjazz.us), is building a virtual collaborative history of this city's jazz heritage, inviting people to share photos, drawings, and stories. She says she passed by that historical marker "hundreds of times" until she got curious and asked locals about it, "but nobody could tell me anything." Finally, in a Sherlockian piece of detective work, she got in to see the sacred space, now an employee's area.
"I have renewed respect for Billie Holiday and for all the musicians of her era," Anderson says. "They created music that has stood the test of time, performing often in venues where they couldn't sit, near hotels where they couldn't stay. I am amazed at what they achieved in spite of all that."
The year 1947 was a year of betrayal for Holiday. She was at the peak of her career, earning upward of $60,000 a year, but hooked on heroin and opium. After a show at the Earle, her room at the Attucks Hotel was raided, and she was arrested on charges of narcotics possession. Her manager advised her not to ask for counsel, which was horrendous advice. "She clearly was hoping for leniency, and rehab, in pleading guilty," Szwed says, "but that isn't what she got."
After being convicted, Holiday was sent for a year and a day to the Federal Reformatory for Women at Alderson, W.Va. Given no treatment, she had to suffer cold-turkey detox.
Her career never fully recovered. Police hounded her. "There's no doubt that back then, this could shadow your career," Szwed says. "Police departments were looking to bust high-profile celebrities."
During those hard days, Holiday often performed at the Showboat and the Earle. Second chances can be harsh. Composer and longtime music educator Leon Mitchell was standing in the wings just before a Holiday show in late-1940s Philadelphia.
"I was talking to a friend," Mitchell says, "and Billie overheard me complaining of the pressures of a jazz musician's life, saying, 'I don't know if I want to go through that,' and she came up to me, spun me around, called me a bad name, and told me I was too young, I didn't know what pressure was. She said, 'When I go on that stage tonight, you watch and see what happens, and you'll see what pressure is.'
"She walked out on the stage, and a big portion of the audience walked out. They bought their tickets just so they could walk out, and they wanted her to see them walk out. To them, she was just a junkie who could sing well. But they should have stayed, because by the end, every eye was wet."
Growing since her death, her influence is at its greatest today, with singers of all ages and genders looking to her as an inspiration.
Philadelphia jazz singer Ella Gahnt, spouse of Mitchell, says, "Every note she sang had an emotion in it. That's what affects us most. As I talk to other singers, she's had an effect on just about all of us. She wasn't the greatest technician, but that wasn't important – it was just her raw emotion. I hardly sing a note without a thought of her."
Local singer Gretchen Elise Walker uses the phrase raw emotion, too – "the way she sang her songs was completely compelling, and continues to be so" among singers such as Erykah Badu and Philly's Jill Scott. Walker marvels at Holiday's phrasing, and how she fused blues and jazz.
As for Scott, she noted that "Billie Holiday is the truest example of grit; of pure unabashed honesty in song. Every hope, every tear shed is held in her voice. That's the kind of magic I'll continue to aspire to."
Singer Madeleine Peyroux, a WXPN favorite whose lovely voice is often compared to Holiday's, says, "I don't think any sound can stop you in your tracks like hers. When she did it to me, I was a teenage runaway aspiring to be a singer – or just to be somebody, to form an identity. . . . My whole career would be an homage to Billie Holiday. By career, I mean identity, sisterhood, family, strength, and ethics. . . . Pioneer, martyr, poet, artist, woman, singer: Happy Birthday Billie!"
Bob Perkins, longtime jazz impresario on WRTI-FM (90.1) at Temple, says he remembers that he first heard Holiday on the radio when he was a boy of 12 or 13, and that he often imagined her singing in a smoke-filled club, passionately crooning the lyrics.
"A lot of singers approximated her sound," he says, singers such as Anita O'Day, who practiced the Holiday knack of singing "behind the beat."
"She had a lot of unique qualities," he says.
Holiday's centenary brings a range of celebrations here and all over the country. On Saturday night, fabulous jazz stylist Cassandra Wilson was scheduled to perform a Holiday tribute show at World Café Live in Wilmington, ahead of the release of her tribute album, Coming Forth By Day, which comes forth, as it should, on April 7. Wilson will help induct Holiday into the famed Apollo Theater Walk of Fame in New York City on April 6.
The best celebration? Put on her music and listen. And relisten. Columbia is releasing Billie Holiday: The Centennial Collection, a 20-track retrospective of her milestone recordings for that label.
How short a life she had: only 44 years. Packed with so much, so many turning points, many of them on the streets of this town.
There is, however, no star for her in these streets.
Faye Anderson asks: "Why is there no star for Billie on the Philadelphia Music Walk of Fame?" Why, indeed?
A desert-island Billie Holiday list
"What a Little Moonlight Can Do" (1935): A 20-year-old Billie Holiday shows how a great singer can elevate a so-so tune.
"The Man I Love" (1939): A musical lovemaking session, accompanied by sax master Lester Young.
"Strange Fruit" (1939): Showstopper of all showstoppers. Written by Abel Meeropol, its depiction of a lynching makes it one of the first hit "protest songs." Still jaw-dropping.
"All of Me" (1941): A singer's clinic on how to make sexual suggestiveness elegant.
"God Bless the Child" (1941): A heartbreaking, true song from her life, sung with world-weary resignation and knowingness by its coauthor.
" 'Taint Nobody's Business If I Do" (1949): Holiday recorded this after she got out of prison for narcotics possession. She renovates an old blues song into a defiant autobiographical statement, for anyone listening.
"Them There Eyes" (1949): A reminder that Holiday could swing, and make you fall in love while swinging. Also recorded in 1939, this is the better version.
– John Timpane
Staff writer Sofiya Ballin contributed to this article.