We all know the lady sang the blues. And by numerous accounts, Billie Holiday lived them, too: raped as a girl, a prostitute by age 14, an addict most of her adult life.
If we are to believe her many biographers, the artist, to paraphrase author Zora Neale Hurston, seemed to believe that nature had given her a "lowdown dirty deal" and her "feelings were all hurt about it." So all of that pain, all of that bitterness and sorrow dammed up in Holiday's soul came through whenever she stepped before a microphone to sing. A profound sense of longing crystallized in her voice. Billie Holiday was a tragic beauty, a victim.
So the legend goes.
But there was much more to the woman born Eleanora Fagan, more complexities to the legend whose image (unsmiling face, a gardenia pinned to her hair) graces T-shirts and postcards today.
The best way to get to know Lady Day - the mythical genius who was raised in the Fells Point section of Baltimore - is to listen closely to her music. In stores tomorrow, two days away from what would have been the singer's 90th birthday, is perhaps the most expansive retrospective of the singer's work.
The Ultimate Collection is a beautifully packaged, multimedia set with 42 songs that cover the artist's 20-year recording career with various record labels. In addition to two CDs of nicely remastered music, there's a DVD featuring film clips from the 1930s and '40s, and TV performances from the '50s. The DVD also includes a timeline and several audio interviews, including a revelatory one Mike Wallace conducted with Holiday in 1956.
"My whole mission on the Billie set was to elevate her as a great artist, not a victim," says producer Toby Byron, whose company, Multiprises, oversaw the release of The Ultimate Collection. "I'm so tired of that. The reason she lives on is because the music is so great, not because she was a drug addict. Her whole musicality reflects America: the good and the bad, for better or worse."
During her lifetime and certainly after her death in 1959, Holiday's genius was largely obscured by personal chaos. In the '40s, her arrests for heroin and opium possession drew big headlines in mainstream papers, while her recordings at the time received little serious critical attention.
In 1956, Holiday published Lady Sings the Blues, a mostly fabricated autobiography that did little to change her self-destructive image. Sixteen years later in 1972, Diana Ross garnered an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the gifted artist in the movie named after the book. The film, a hit that introduced a new generation to Holiday's music, misconstrued the artist's life even more and further perpetuated the many myths about her.
Farah Jasmine Griffin, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, wrote a probing analysis of Holiday's legend in the 2001 book If You Can't Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday.
"A lot of those myths about Billie Holiday are longstanding myths about black women, period," Griffin says. "Those myths are that black women artists are not smart, that their emotions rule over intellect, that they only sing from their heart, that they're not skilled musicians. There would be no Norah Jones if there was no Billie Holiday. Second only to Louis Armstrong, she had the most profound influence on American popular music."
Hers was a small, coronet-like voice with a limited range. But with it, Holiday revolutionized pop and jazz singing forever. She was the first popular vocalist to benefit from the advance technology of the microphone, which enabled her to perfect her hushed, quiet tone. She sang behind the beat, a technique later picked up by Frank Sinatra, who adored Holiday. She suspended time with her innate improvisational talent, a skill that influenced Miles Davis' moody style on the trumpet.
"Her sense of rhythm was dead on," says author and music critic Ashley Kahn, who wrote the liner notes for The Ultimate Collection. "Part of the reason why she sounds so modern is that so many singers still use her techniques to convey emotion and intimacy."
Not only a heart-tugging interpreter of vulnerable, down-in-the-dumps blues, Holiday was a master sensualist. One only needs to skip to Track 3 on Disc 2 of The Ultimate Collection and listen as the singer spins aural silk out of "You're My Thrill." Recorded in 1949 at the peak of Holiday's artistry, a few years before her voice hardened from her years of rough living, the ballad boasts an ebbing, fluttering string arrangement, and the legend's hypnotic voice floats above it all.
Although Holiday wrestled with drug abuse and no-good men, she conveyed much more than despair in her music. She could be flirty ("Them There Eyes" and "What a Little Moonlight Can Do") and wise ("Detour Ahead" and "I'm a Fool to Want You").
Contrary to some of the myths, Holiday's life was quite extraordinary: A black woman born into crippling poverty in Philadelphia on April 7, 1915, she rose to international fame as a vocalist, forever revolutionizing the art of singing along the way.
"She had a beautiful life relative to what people went through then," Kahn says. "A lot of brothers and sisters went through hell and didn't sign a contract to sing about it on stage at Carnegie Hall."
Holiday was uptown and down-home. She was self-indulgent and had a long line of lovers: male and female, black and white.
She cussed; she drank gin. She smoked cigarettes and cooked soul food for friends. Baked pigs' feet and red beans and rice were her specialties.
Beyond such classics as "Strange Fruit" and "God Bless the Child," perhaps her two best-known recordings, beyond the tales (twisted and true) of reckless living, Holiday was a trailblazer. Elements of her style, musical and otherwise, endure. You see her elegantly understated fashion sense in the way Sade dresses: the simple lines, the slick ponytail, the hoop earrings. You hear echoes of her phrasing in the music of Erykah Badu, Norah Jones, Macy Gray, Amos Lee.
"She really created her own thing as an artist," says Byron, who also produced the 1992 Cable Ace Award-winning documentary Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday. "All you have to do is listen to her music through the '30s and the '50s and you see the arc of her life."
Kahn says, "The really great performers know how to reach into their lives and translate the peaks and valleys, the joys and pains. But there is still a sense of performance there, some mystery. Nobody did that better than Billie Holiday."