Billie Holiday has been dead for more than four decades, yet in Baltimore she lives on. The. famed jazz singer lives in the memory of her many local fans and in the tribute Baltimore has held in her honor for 10 years. This year's tribute, the 11th annual Mayor's Billie Holiday Vocal Competition, takes place Saturday at Center Stage.
Holiday called Baltimore home, so it is fitting that this city celebrate her life, says singer Ruby Glover. It was Glover's idea to honor Lady Day this way.
"There was nothing in place that would honor the style of Billie Holiday and keep her memory in front of young musicians," Glover says. "Billie Holiday was respected by all musicians [in her day], not just vocalists. They respected her style."
This year, 10 semifinalists will sing their hearts out in hopes of winning over the three judges. Besides Glover, the other judges are radio personalities Andy Bienstock, host of a jazz program on WJHU-FM, and Gary Ellerbe, former host of the "Prime Time" jazz program on WEAA-FM.
The judges are looking for that certain magical something, but not necessarily a clone of Billie Holiday, Glover says.
"I don't want them just copying her," she says. "In music, you tell a story just like prose or poetry does."
Lorretta Gladden-Reddy, 40, has been telling stories with her singing since she was around 4 years old.
"I started singing with my father and sister," Gladden-Reddy says. "You could say my father was my first voice coach."
Gladden-Reddy has been a Billie Holiday fan for more than 30 years, "ever since my sister started playing the song 'Strange Fruit,'" she says, referring to a 1939 Billie Holiday recording that protested the lynching of blacks.
Gladden-Reddy is a customer-service representa-tive/laboratory technician at Johns Hopkins Hospital. While in high school, she studied music at the Peabody Conservatory and at Morgan State University. She sang at a tribute to Lady Day held at the Enoch Pratt Free Library 14 years ago. And she has performed with the Maryland All State Choir.
Gladden-Reddy, who is entering the Holiday competition for the first time, would like to use the event as a springboard for more professional performances -- and even to begin a full-time singing career.
"I would love to be able to do something that I love, get to share it with other people and get paid for it," she says.
The competition is precisely for people like Gladden-Reddy. "We try to gear it away from those who have already become professionals," Glover says.
Gladden-Reddy's tape was one of about 60 that she and the other judges listened to.
The competition is run by the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Arts and Culture. Applicants submitted a cassette tape of no more than three songs. One of the songs had to have been recorded by Holiday.
None of the singers can have "current or prior affiliation as a featured vocal performer with a recording company, talent agency or management firm," the official rules state. Also, no more than half an applicant's annual income can come from earnings as a featured performer in the music industry.
The 10 semifinalists will be performing in front of about 700 people, judging from attendance in previous years. They will perform two songs of their choosing.
"We look for the potential people have to do phrasing, to tell a story and look good, because Billie Holiday always looked good," Glover says.
"Of course, they have to have a good voice," she adds.
There will be a first-, second- and third-place winner. The first-place winner receives $1,500 and gets to perform at Artscape, the city's annual summer festival of the arts. The prize for second place is $1,000; third place, $500.
Some of the past winners have gone on to make professional appearances at jazz fests and to perform at clubs around the country.
And no, not all the winners were women.
"There was a male winner back in our fourth or fifth year who came from a classical background and had a wonderful voice," Glover says.
This year, Wade Brown is seeking to become another male winner.
"It's interesting," he says about being the sole male semifinalist. "I was thinking about taping a gardenia to my bald head," he jokes, "but I figured that wouldn't work."
Brown, 45, works as a book shelver for Borders Books. He's been singing for a long, long time. How long? "Oh my goodness, before Diana left the Supremes, that's how long I've been trying to be famous," he says. "That would be more than 30 years."
This is Brown's second try at winning. He entered the competition last year but did not make it to the semifinalist stage.
He enjoys the music of Billie Holiday. "On my tape, I sang 'God Bless the Child' and 'Good Morning Heartache,'" he says.
He says his style is "gospel/pop-oriented." And he has carved out a musical niche for himself. "I'm a famous funeral singer," he says. "It's nice to sing for some live people for a change."
Jedda Queen, 42, would love to record and sing "real music."