by Melody Breyer-Grell
The mere facts behind Billie Holiday’s life can never, alone, tell the story of her art. Her scuffles with the law and polite society, even the racial prejudice she faced, were faced by millions of the underprivileged and abused.
So, for all the hardships that she did endure, the thing she must and will be remembered for is her emotional genius. It’s the type of genius that Maria Callas had, Billy Joel has and even certain sports greats like Babe Ruth had. It is the singular ability to affect an audience and offer to their art form something more than perfection. It is heart—an expression that does not only portray the affairs of such—but gameness, the rage to go forward, no matter what obstacles are afforded.
Holiday’s voice, especially in the later years (as was Callas’s) was not considered conventionally beautiful nor perfect, but that hardly mattered. It was the interpretation of a lyric, the naked sadness, and the primal need to connect with her audience (unencumbered by ego). That is what drew the listeners.
Considering how short Holiday’s life was, and how plagued she was by substance abuse and relationship issues, her output was tremendous, as the recording studio is what has made her legacy permanent and timeless. Her choice to perform and record “Strange Fruit” resulted in one of the most artistic and moving depictions of racial violence to this day. In listening to her plaintive voice caress the (still) shocking lyrics of that song, the combination of horror and beauty sum up the ultimate finesse this artist possessed. The Old Testament wisdom of “God Bless the Child,” coupled with the romantic longings in “I’m a Fool to Want You,” exemplify the complexity and completeness that Holiday so owned. Billie Holiday is the ultimate Hall of Famer!
Category: Hall of Fame