Billie Holiday was a soul singing sensation who captured real emotion with vocals that make you believe she meant every word. She said in an interview that she wanted her voice to be capable of producing sounds like a musical instrument, and when you listen to her sing, the way her voice varies, ripples and hovers on notes, it’s clear that she mimicked the sounds of a saxophone or trumpet with charismatic clarity; the only major difference was that she could also articulate the sentiment with words to give each song its substance. She was the leading player, laying her melody on top of the backing band’s arrangement of music, while also stepping aside at points to let them play on without her, as a show of appreciation and old-fashioned courtesy that defined the gentle, sophisticated character of jazz music. When she rejoins them they work together in an unfaltering partnership to produce an effortless symphony. A comment left on YouTube underneath the video for ‘Sunny Side of the Street’ sums up the caliber of Holiday’s whole performance and experience, where quality was present in every element, “Who is the pianist? Amazing! Billie Holiday always had a fine band” – kukanakamaoli
But behind the gentle sways, elegance and poise; underneath the polished presentation of arched eyebrows, full red lips, glamorous gowns and a signature Gardenia flower, was a woman struggling with drink, drugs and the fear of poverty – a residual anxiety that stemmed from a childhood filled with abandonment and prostitution. On the surface Holiday stood as a living, breathing success story, made even more impressive by the fact that her unquestionable talent shielded her from the immediate threat of racial prejudice; but even though she did fear attacks, audiences flocked and she was still able to take to the stage and perform, as eyes of all colours became captivated.
Holiday helped to define an era, forging a way ahead for black music to thrive, by offering the world a unique, unforgettable voice that lingered with class and timeless appeal. Her voice was a semblance of emotional honesty and what sounded like an ethereal gift. Infusing feeling into every word and note, Holiday was just the person to sing the blues, as she knew only too well what it was like to be trapped in melancholy. Defying her stage name, which seemed to project a carefree, sunny image, used as a tactic to attract, while maintaining the glitzy show business image, she actually became a contradiction, almost becoming enamoured and swallowed up by sorrow.
Without really knowing much about her life and only being familiar with a few of her songs, I didn’t ever take the time to look beyond the glamour or listen properly to the heartfelt lyrics she sang. I just appreciated the snippets of vintage recordings I heard on a basic level, dismissing her as a singer reserved for a past that seemed so far removed from the present. Captured in black and white stills and old scratched film, she seemed unreal in a way, existing as an iconic shimmer of perfection in a place driven by easy, relaxed melodies, refined attitudes and effortless style. So without ever really delving into what made her such an iconic jazz and blues singer, I missed out on the real beauty and messages within her songs, the talent my grandparents were exposed to, and the fact that today’s audiences can still take so much away from her songs because essentially human emotion remains unchanged.
From the pinnacle of stardom to a less than dignified demise, Holiday seemed destined for tragedy from the offset. Born to a mother of just 13 and a father of 16, who quickly abandoned them, she was left in the care of a relative numerous times, was raped by a neighbor, to then work with her mother in a brothel at age 14. The fact that she found a way out through the discovery of her singing ability must have come as the escape she dreamt of. Quickly adored and revered globally, Holiday’s income soared which gained her the means and introduced her to the company that led her into the underworld of narcotics. Holiday once tellingly said, “We never know what is enough until we know what’s more than enough.” This quote reveals how far an addict will go. It’s the same for human nature, usually we only realise we’ve gone to far when it’s too late. I was shocked to learn that Holiday died at only 44, with just 70 cents in the bank and 750 dollars strapped to her leg. Nevertheless, she achieved so much in such a short amount of time. Like so many others, Amy Winehouse, Marilyn Monroe and Jimmy Hendrix to name just a few; Holiday experienced the pitfalls of fortune and fame, rising and then falling, to leave behind a legacy of brilliance that is treasured to this day.
YouTube is a quick and easy way of learning about songs and artists past and present. Music channels are usually devoted to chart music, so the modern tunes tend to take centre stage, without much of a nod to the music that led to their inception. In just an hour I had listened to a whole variety of Holiday’s songs, spanning two decades, all available in one place, without searching them out in a single record store.
As a medium, YouTube also allows you to instantly gage how songs are received by reading the comments posted under every video. Many are written with finesse and passion worthy of publication; and because they are anonymous, with untraceable, fictional names, they are more likely to express true feelings, which creates an accurate representation of Holiday’s effect on people, even to this day. This makes YouTube and other internet music sites reliable measurements of an artist’s impact, despite the passing of time or our ability to look up every detail of a singer’s personal life. YouTube acts as a modern platform that allows contemporary audiences a chance to air their views, which bar a few are all positive. It reveals how inspirational Holiday remains, as she is still able to generate an outpouring of praise.
The YouTube response to Holiday:
“It is obvious she lived life…or she couldn’t sing songs like that” – joni4749
“Goosebumps every single time with this woman” – SunshineMod
“The Queen of Jazz and Mother of Blues. There will never be another Billie Holiday…she held great courage during the most difficult era and gained respect that continues for centuries beyond us” – Crosswinds22
“Ella could shatter glass, Sarah could sing anything, but Billie was the greatest jazz vocalist to ever walk the face of this earth… true feelings and emotions in every note she sang….” – Genevieve
“Dislike bar is invisible, that’s the way it should be” – 20twinkle
“Billie could sing a shopping list and make it sound great” – 73380401
“She was a natural with improv…a gift of poetry flowing with music” – McDon55
“Billie is my soul sister! Man, do I love her” – Green nostalgic
I particularly like ‘You’ve Changed’, quite a famous song of Holiday’s, which I hadn’t heard, until a few days ago. It addresses the flip side of love, when affection starts to wane and the other partner has to deal with heartbreak alone, while accepting that the end is inevitable, which in a way is made harder due to the absence of outright hostility during a slow process of rejection. This is when the singer turns to music as an outlet for sorrow. The raw emotion is apparent inside every note and word, where imagery of hopelessness is brought to life by the heartfelt inflections and distinct charm produced by Holiday. It’s a situation many find themselves in more than once, and if you’re lucky enough not to have experienced it, you can definitely sympathise:
A YouTube comment I found epitomises Holiday’s enduring resonance, “Late Billie is special, that she can still draw so much out of this song. Really hauntingly beautiful, start to finish” – wdbop3
The music of Holiday’s era seems so removed, yet still so relevant to what we hear now. I’m sure Beyoncé and Alicia Keys are influenced by jazz and blues singers like Holiday, releasing what we now know as modern R ‘n’ B songs. Unfortunately most artists also seem to share a fame induced sadness to some degree. Beyoncé is a prime example. Musically she has triumphed, her talent and energy seem limitless sometimes, but behind the smiles and confidence lies a fragility that rarely gets noticed. In a documentary about Beyoncé’s ‘I am…tour’, behind the scenes footage reveals Beyoncé questioning her life in the limelight, which certainly made me review her position, transforming my take on every interview and performance of hers I now see.
It’s all too easy to fall for the palpable glamour and showgirl performances, without really looking at the needs of the person, who are vulnerable to exploitation and pressure, and at times may perform to avoid the withdrawal of adoration, set on a path they feel they have to pursue. To audiences of thousands, stars put on brave faces to screaming fans and in doing so may mask suffering, without anyone addressing or noticing their pain. This piece of film made me immediately view Beyoncé, the strong, sexy, multi talented superstar with the world at her feet with sympathy. The idea that she had to use the stage persona ‘Sasha Fierce’ to be able to portray confidence and attitude convincingly on stage suddenly all made sense. Maybe it’s not always that fun or that easy. Even in this video she smiles through her tears, reminding herself that she’s blessed, when she is clearly trying to make sense of a life in the glare of a spotlight.
Billie Holiday Chanel Advert
Evidence of Billie Holiday’s enduring impact upon popular culture can be heard and seen in the recent Chanel No. 5 advert, starring the French actress Audrey Tautou, in which one of Holiday’s later songs ‘I’m a Fool to Want You’ is played. The song accents every movement in the ad, alongside a couple experiencing the intensity of love at first sight, where the scent of Tautou’s perfume sets up an instant attraction. Every sideways glance, missed opportunity and moment of longing is perfectly accompanied by Holiday’s classic bouquet of song, in keeping with Chanel’s chic image.
This advert was beautifully shot, every element including the song choice fitting together perfectly, which you would expect from such an iconic brand. It is all so appealing and this YouTube comment probably speaks for most women when it says, “I’d buy this perfume just because of how good the song and video is” – helpsavetheanimals. This advert alone inspired me to find out more about the singer and the song. I mistakenly thought the singer was Ella Fitzgerald but when I discovered it was actually Billie Holiday, I was drawn in by her story and enchanted by her music; I soaked up every piece of information I could find, to feel an increasing sadness as I learned more; but in a way I’m so glad I did. Listening to her songs I now have a greater understanding of the words she sang and how she sang them. Writing this blog post has given me an insight into her positive affect on people, as well as a greater appreciation of her music that will always make her so much more than just a lovely voice.
In part, Holiday seemed to owe her career not just to natural talent but also to her experiences, however dreadful. Her soulful reverberations and ability to infuse passion and pain into her work made strong, lasting impressions. Holiday’s performances were so powerful that she could even move herself to tears. When the recording of ‘I’m a Fool to Want You’ was played back to her for the first time, her eyes welled with tears. If that isn’t testament to her musical prowess, I don’t know what is.