Billie Holiday songs make us feel the heartbreak down to our toes LADY'S DAY

April 09, 1994|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

A lot has changed in the music world since Billie Holiday's time.

Jazz, which was her bread and butter, has moved from the forefront of popular music to the sidelines; in its place are sounds and styles unimagined when Lady Day (as Lester Young called her) was singing. In her day, radio ruled the roost; today, it's music video. Even the way music is sold is different, as records -- the medium Holiday knew -- have long since been replaced by cassettes and CDs.

Yet her music endures.

In 1958, a year before she died, Frank Sinatra said that Holiday was "unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last 20 years." Not only did she develop a memorable and unique style of jazz singing, but the way she approached her material left its mark on many of her peers, both in jazz and out.

Thirty-six years after her death, Holiday's influence can still be felt throughout the pop music world.

Her songs are still being recorded, almost eight decades after her birth (she would have been 79 Thursday). The best -- "God Bless the Child," "Lady Sings the Blues" and "Fine and Mellow" -- are rightly considered classics.

Tribute albums abound, with homage being paid by jazz and pop musicians alike. Already this year, there have been Holiday-centered releases from jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard ("The Billie Holiday Songbook" on Columbia), blues singer Etta James ("Mystery Lady: The Songs of Billie Holiday" on Private Music), and soul star Miki Howard ("Miki Sings Billie" on Giant).

Holiday's own albums are also still around. The current Schwann Spectrum catalog lists 76 titles in print at the moment, ranging from radio transcriptions to massive anthologies. (For a selected discography, see story above.) Moreover, Holiday is collecting kudos for her work, as "The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve" boxed set recently won three Grammys -- for Best Album Package, Best Album Notes and Best Historical Album.

Why has Holiday's influence endured?

She was never much of a hit-maker. "Pop Memories 1890-1954," Joel Whitburn's compilation of early record charts, lists 39 singles listed under her name, but only one -- the 1937 hit $H "Carelessly" -- was a chart-topper. Unlike Bessie Smith or Ella Fitzgerald, none of Holiday's records were million sellers.

Furthermore, she never had an especially great voice. Even in its prime, her instrument lacked the rich luxuriance listeners heard in Sarah Vaughan or Lena Horne, nor did she have the technique that left jazz musicians in awe of Ella Fitzgerald or Mildred Bailey. In fact, by the end of her career, Holiday's voice, battered by years of hard living and substance abuse, had deteriorated to such a degree that some reviewers wondered in print if what she did even counted as singing.

Despite such limitations, Holiday had an effect on listeners that was like nothing else in popular music. After seeing her on a 1957 telecast entitled "The Sound of Jazz," critic Dan Morgenstern wrote, "Some say that what Billie does now is no longer singing; whatever it is, it sure as hell communicates."

Does it ever. Even today, listeners are drawn in by the emotional immediacy of her recordings. Unlike other singers, who focused their attention on carrying the tune or keeping things swinging, Holiday emphasized the emotions beneath the melody and rhythm. Hearing her, it's easy to understand how her man could be "Easy to Love," or why "(There Is) No Greater Love" than the one she had.

Holiday's most memorable recordings conveyed longing, heartbreak, depression and determination with soul-stirring eloquence. Yet she never gave in to the sort of soul-bearing excess common to today's confessional singers; like the best blues singers, she understood the power of simplicity and understatement, and could produce devastating effects from the tiniest inflections.

Listen to her 1939 recording of "Strange Fruit." The song, written by Lewis Allan, protests the lynching of blacks in language both poetic and grotesque, bitterly invoking the "pastoral scene of the gallow South/The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth."

It's the sort of song that can easily fall prey to cheap dramatics, and often does. But Holiday's rendition has none of that. Instead, she presents the song with chilling understatement, offering the lyrics in a voice so restrained and matter-of-fact you'd almost think there was nothing amiss in the image she describes -- that is, until you paint the picture for yourself.

In other words, Holiday doesn't tell us how to feel, but allows us to experience that horror and revulsion on our own terms. It's a sly but devastatingly effective strategy.

It's also typical of what makes Lady Day such an enduring force in popular music. Sure, plenty of people have sung with more polish or panache. But few have ever made their listeners feel the music as deeply as Billie Holiday did.

COMPETITION TODAY

Baltimore celebrates one of its own when the Fourth Annual Billie Holiday Vocal Competition takes place today at the Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St. For more information on the competition and a selected list of Billie Holiday's recordings see 2D

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