Watch Four Iconic Live Performances by Billie Holiday

Bil­lie Holiday’s name has been in the news late­ly for some rea­sons that remind us of the tragedies she sang about and those she endured. First, there was the sto­ry of the rather appalling­ly tone-deaf PR firm who thought one of Holiday’s most well-known record­ings, “Strange Fruit”—a song about lynch­ing—would make a great name for their brand. Then there were the new details in Johann Hari’s book Chas­ing the Scream of how Hol­i­day was hunt­ed, haunt­ed, and pos­si­bly framed by Fed­er­al Bureau of Nar­cotics head Har­ry Anslinger. These sto­ries com­pound the image of Hol­i­day as a trag­ic fig­ure, a casu­al­ty of soci­etal ills and per­son­al demons.

Hol­i­day may have doc­u­ment­ed her trou­bled life in her auto­bi­og­ra­phy, but she would have pre­ferred to be remem­bered for her music. Born 100 years ago today, the jazz songstress trans­mut­ed her per­son­al pain into beau­ty; her inter­pre­ta­tions of songs became stan­dards in their own right, and became unique­ly hers.

“God Bless the Child,” above, res­onates with Holiday’s own dif­fi­cult child­hood, shad­owed by neglect and loss, but she deliv­ers it as though all had been for­giv­en and redeemed. She sang through abu­sive rela­tion­ships and addic­tion and some pret­ty shab­by treat­ment by a racist indus­try.

For exam­ple, Bret Pri­mack tells the sto­ry in a Jaz­zTimes arti­cle of the Fox The­atre in Detroit forc­ing Hol­i­day to wear black­face in order to appear on stage with Count Basie’s Orches­tra. As Lady Day her­self remarked of the humil­i­at­ing episode, “There’s no damn busi­ness like show busi­ness. You have to smile to keep from throw­ing up.” Toward the end of her life, in 1956, she gave one of her last of 22 con­certs at Carnegie Hall (see her do her own com­po­si­tion “Fine and Mel­low” above). The rehearsals—wrote New York Times crit­ic Gilbert Mill­stein in the album lin­er notes—“had been desul­to­ry,” her voice “tin­ny and trailed off.” But at show­time, she appeared “poised and smil­ing,” singing “with strength undi­min­ished.” In his lin­er remarks, Nat Hentoff described Holiday’s “assur­ance of phras­ing and into­na­tion” and “an out­go­ing warmth, a pal­pa­ble eager­ness to reach out and touch the audi­ence,” a smile “often light­ly evi­dent on her lips and her eyes.”

In a ret­ro­spec­tive essay, Hentoff refers to the sad fact that “Bil­lie is most remem­bered as a victim—of her­self, of soci­ety” as well as “the myth that, toward the end, Lady invari­ably sound­ed like a cracked husk of what she had been years before.” While it’s cer­tain­ly true that she fell vic­tim to oth­ers’ designs and her own bad judg­ment, she had her share of tri­umphs as well, most of them on the stage. Even in 1959, the year of her death, when her prob­lems with alco­hol had wors­ened to a soon-to-be fatal degree, and her voice had lost some of its vital­i­ty, she per­formed with swag­ger and grace. See her above sing “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” in one of her final live appear­ances. Holiday’s short, trag­ic life may have giv­en us plen­ty to talk about, but her mem­o­ry is best pre­served by lis­ten­ing to her sing.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How “America’s First Drug Czar” Waged War Against Bil­lie Hol­i­day and Oth­er Jazz Leg­ends

Bil­lie Hol­i­day — The Life and Artistry of Lady Day: The Com­plete Film

Duke Ellington’s Sym­pho­ny in Black, Star­ring a 19-Year-old Bil­lie Hol­i­day

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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