Giving their best for Billie Holiday

Fourteen singers will vie Saturday to win the contest honoring Lady Day

April 11, 2002|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

BILLIE HOLIDAY'S roots run deep in Baltimore.

She forged one of the great American singing styles from a childhood lived poor and hard and mean on Durham Street in Fells Point and on Pennsylvania Avenue near North Avenue.

She derived her signature song, "God Bless the Child," from a childhood of heart-wrenching experience.

"Yes, the strong gets more

"While the weak ones fade

"Empty pockets don't ever make the grade ... "

"Rich relations give

"Crust of bread and such

"You can help yourself

"But don't take too much."

Holiday lived with relatives most of the time when she was a kid in Baltimore - almost all were poor, none rich. Her mother, Sadie Fagan, went north to Philadelphia and New York for better pay as a housemaid. Lady Day, as jazz great Lester Young called Holiday, did a couple of stints in the House of the Good Shepherd for wayward girls before she was 12.

She scrubbed the white marble steps and the floors at Alice Dean's brothel. And she listened to Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith records on the Victrola and found the roots of her coppery, bittersweet singing style - in which every generation since her death in 1959 has found new truths.

Baltimore now honors her with Billie Holiday Court, off Bond and Gay streets; the compact Billie Holiday Park at Pennsylvania Avenue and Lafayette Avenue, with its heroic statue of Holiday in bronze; and, perhaps most appropriately, with the Billie Holiday Vocal Competition.

The 13th edition of the contest will be held from noon to 4:15 p.m. Saturday. Fourteen semifinalists will compete at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. The date is not quite a week after the 87th anniversary of Holiday's birth - April 7, 1915.

The competing singers (picked from 42 applicants) will perform for 10 minutes each. They will appear in strict alphabetical order:

Iva Jean Ambush, Nita Callihan, Betty Cuffey, Pamela Godfrey, Eric Hanson, Terri Kee, Marianne Matheny, Mike Noonan, Orchid Oelke, Marvin Parks, Scotti Preston, Jonathan Stone, Jean Tillman-Parker and Angela Washington.

Each contestant submitted a tape with three songs, with at least one from the Billie Holiday repertoire, which, by the way, includes many of the standards of the 20th century.

Singer Ruby Glover, who was instrumental in launching the competition when Kurt Schmoke was mayor, was a judge in the first contest, and she's a judge again this year.

Her adjudicating colleagues are Sheila Ford, a singer who has performed in venues from the Bluebird Cafe in Moscow to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif., to the New Haven Lounge here in Baltimore; and Annapolis' Parris Lane, who has a five-octave voice that's been heard from King of France Tavern in her hometown to Carnegie Hall in New York City.

They want emulators of Billie Holiday, not imitators.

"We look for, certainly, the quality of the person's performance," Glover says.

They weigh the performer's ability "not to sound like the artist but to take from what her legacy is - a good, wonderful, thorough musician."

Lady Day sang with deep emotion, impeccable phrasing and a flawless sense of time.

Glover listened to Holiday at the old Comedy Club on Pennsylvania Avenue: "She wanted to supply a good story. And that story is the story of self through the music you select."

Holiday sang, "You're my thrill, you do something to me ... " and every man in the room hoped she was singing to him, and all the women knew what she was singing about.

Her "Yesterdays" was a nostalgic lament that evoked memories of "days of mad romance and love" in folks who never got closer to "joyous free and flaming life" than a Saturday-afternoon matinee with Fred Astaire starring in Roberta.

She based "Don't Explain" on a lifetime of bad choices in lovers: "I'm glad you're back, don't explain ... "

She sang " 'Tain't Nobody's Business" - a Bessie Smith song she may have heard on Alice Dean's Victrola - like a declaration of independence: "If I go to church on Sunday and cabaret all day Monday/ 'Tain't nobody's business if I do."

And with "Strange Fruit," a song perhaps unique in vocal music, her singing evoked a lynching as if it were a scene from Dante's Inferno - with a tear rending her every word.

"You can wrap yourself in that legacy," Ruby Glover says, "and come out knowledgeable about what may have been her dreams. But you make your own dreams happen."

Glover is pleased that male singers have made a strong showing this year. Four are in the semifinals.

"I was fascinated to see how males pop up like new shoots among all these flowers. Here come the prettier ones," she says, somewhat amused.

Mike Noonan, 40, is one of the male singers this year. He's not bad-looking in a red Terps baseball hat, but not particularly pretty. He's from Annapolis and plays vibraphone, marimba, trombone and occasionally piano with the Unified Jazz Band, which is a mainstay at the 49 West Coffeehouse, where he's eating fish for lunch.

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