Billie Holiday's Voice Was Always Her Own

Apr 7, 2015

Billie Holiday was born 100 years ago Tuesday in Philadelphia. Fresh Air jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has some thoughts on Holiday's changing style, her influences, and singers she influenced.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The great singer Billie Holiday was born in Philadelphia 100 years ago today. Our jazz critic, Kevin Whitehead, has some thoughts on how Holiday's style evolved, her influences and singers she influenced.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL GET BY")

BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) I'll get by as long as I have you. Though there'll be rain and darkness, too, I'll not complain. I'll live with you.

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Billie Holiday in 1937. Quizzed about her influences, Holiday would say she always wanted Bessie Smith's big sound and Louis Armstrong's feeling after hearing them as a youngster. Billie could never match Smith's lung power. Holiday's volume level was more conversational. But she did catch Bessie's depth of feeling. Here's how Smith sounded in 1928, when Holiday was 13.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EMPTY BED BLUES")

BESSIE SMITH: (Singing) I woke up this morning, can't even get out of my door. There's enough trouble to make a poor girl wonder where she wants to go.

WHITEHEAD: Trumpet king Louis Armstrong was a great singer himself, and his influence on Holiday is more direct, the way he'd revamp a melody and swing the rhythm to personalize the tune.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GEORGIA ON MY MIND")

LOUIS ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Oh, Georgia, Georgia, the whole day through, babe, just an old, sweet song keeps Georgia on my mind, Georgia on my mind.

WHITEHEAD: You can hear Armstrong's inspiration in Billie Holiday's way of editing a written melody, sometimes to accommodate her fairly narrow range, sometimes to sell the lyric Bessie Smith-style. But like any great artist, Holiday brought more than what she inherited. Here she is at 22 with the original hit version of a recent Gershwin tune.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUMMERTIME")

HOLIDAY: (Singing) Summertime, and the living is easy. Fish are jumping, and the cotton is high. Oh, your daddy's rich, and your ma is good-looking. So hush, little baby, don't you cry.

WHITEHEAD: Inspirations aside, Billie Holiday had her own style from the first. Her cool demeanor and way of teasing the beat endeared her to swinging cats like saxophonist Lester Young and his buddies in Count Basie's band. They often recorded with her. She and Young could really egg each other on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME, MYSELF AND I")

HOLIDAY: (Singing) Me, myself and I are all in love with you. We all think you're wonderful, we do. Me, myself and I have just one point of view. We're convinced there's no one else like you. It can't be denied, dear. You brought the sun to us. We'd be satisfied, dear, if you belonged to one of us or if you...

WHITEHEAD: Billie Holiday's fleet sound mirrored modern instrumental styles, pointing the way for much mid-century jazz and pop singing. Frank Sinatra once called her his single greatest influence. But by the '40s, when Sinatra hit, Holiday's girlishness was fading and a new world-weariness crept in. Her new producers positioned her more as a pop singer, but that was mostly a matter of changing the settings. Now violins were in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE MY THRILL")

HOLIDAY: (Singing) You're my thrill. You do something to me. You send chill right through me when I look at you because you're my thrill. You're my thrill.

WHITEHEAD: Billie Holiday had a famously tough life. Her autobiography was called "Lady Sings The Blues" for more than musical reasons. She hooked up with bad men and got hooked on narcotics at a time when celebrity addicts made easy pickings for law enforcement. By the mid-1950s, her voice had weathered dramatically, turned to leather. Hard knocks had knocked the wind out of her.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THERE'LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE")

HOLIDAY: (Singing) I'm going to change my way of living. And if that ain't enough, then I'll change the way that I strut my stuff. Nobody wants you when you're old and gray. There'll be some changes made today. There'll be some changes made.

WHITEHEAD: I used to think fans of Holiday's late period were ghoulish, relishing the pain in her voice. Now, I better appreciate the musical challenge she faced, how to keep swinging when you've only got half a breath and three notes left. But even her final recordings had wide influence. One young singer who emerged after she died learned so much from her records about being expressive with a meager voice, he placed one of her last albums on the cover photo for one of his.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT YOU")

BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Now, your dancing child with his Chinese suit, he spoke to me. I took his flute. No, I wasn't very cute to him, was I? But I did it because he lied and because he took you for a ride and because time is on his side and because I want you.

WHITEHEAD: Give Bob Dylan the last word. In 1968, he said, a great poet like Wallace Stevens doesn't necessarily make a great singer, but a great singer always, like Billie Holiday, makes a great poet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LADY SINGS THE BLUES")

HOLIDAY: (Singing) Lady sings the blues. I'm telling you, she's got them bad. But now the world will know. She's never going to sing them no more because the blues ain't nothing but pain in your heart, when you get a bad start, when you and your man have to part, ain't going to just sit around and cry. I know I won't die because I love him. Lady sings the blues. I'm telling you, she's got them bad. But now the world will know. She's never going to sing them no more, no more.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?" Billie Holiday was born 100 years ago today. Tomorrow, we'll talk about a subject I'd rather not even think about, but you kind of have to nowadays. Bedbugs - we hate them. They love us. They're attracted to the carbon dioxide in our breath and the heat from our bodies. And when they find us and bite us...

BROOKE BOREL: They fill up more like if you were attaching a balloon to a spigot.

GROSS: We talk with Brooke Borel, author of "Infested: How The Bedbug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms And Took Over The World." That's tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.