Billie Holiday is one of the most iconic jazz singers with her tragic life, early death, unique voice color and huge flowers she wears on her ear. A diva who impressed everyone with her unique approach to each song in her repertoire. Although she has a private life that has preceded her artistic career, her singing is still frequently mentioned in academic fields. In this article, we talk about Lady Day, whose composition and songwriting we do not have enough information about, although she is perhaps the singer with the most information in the history of jazz, with films, documentaries, articles written, academic articles and books.
Lady Day, aka Billie Holiday, is a jazz singer and songwriter who was born on April 7, 1915, in Philadelphia, into poverty, loneliness and a very difficult childhood. She spent almost 30 years of her 44-year life actively singing. One of the most striking issues in Lady Day’s singing career, one of the most important representatives of popular American singing, is her avoidance of scat singing in her performances. Although she gives full credit to the improvisation, which is one of the most important musical elements of jazz music, in the melodies or lyrics she sings, she does not scat singing either in her recordings or in her concerts.
One of the songs that made Billie Holiday most popular was the song “Strange Fruit”, which, contrary to popular belief, did not write the lyrics or music. Everyone who listens to this song also carries a piece of Holiday. In fact, I don’t think anyone except Holiday could even get this song close to her interpretation. This song, which tells the terrible racism problem of the period with its impressive poem, is identified with Holiday. Although “Strange Fruit” does not belong to Holiday in terms of lyrics or music, she almost made the song with Lady Day’s unique interpretation.
There are 19 recorded songs that Holiday wrote or shared writing. Most of them are blues, some are in song form. “God Bless the Child” or “Don’t Explain”, which are still frequently performed by jazz singers, are among the most popular jazz standards written by Holiday. In all the songs she wrote, it is seen how clearly her life is reflected in the lyrics. In her semi-autobiographical book Lady Sings the Blues, which she wrote with William Dufty, she states that she is telling a story of deception in the lyrics of the song “Don’t Explain”, and in the song “God Bless the Child” she translated the words she said during a fight with her mother into the song.
As John Chilton mentions in his book Billie’s Blues, Holiday received no royalties except for the $ 11 she received for the song “Billie’s Blues”. The most important collaborator of Holiday’s songwriting is undoubtedly Arthur Herzog Jr. has been. Herzog Jr., “Don’t Explain”, “God Bless the Child”, “Somebody’s On My Mind” and which they wrote with Holiday’s close friend, pianist Teddy Wilson’s wife, songwriter Irene Kitchings he worked with Holiday on the theme “Some Other Spring”.
Another important name that Holiday worked with in the writing of her songs was Herbie Nichols. Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler mentioned Nichols as the forgotten talent of jazz history in their collaborative book, and compared her playing to the early Thelonious Monk. The song “Lady Sings the Blues”, which Lady Day wrote together with Nichols, has become an important jazz standard for jazz singers who have given their names to many books.
Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong are among the names that Holiday was most influenced by musically. The interpretation of the great blues singer Bessie Smith caused the majority of Holiday’s songs to be composed of blues. These songs include “Fine and Mellow”, “Billie’s Blues” and “Stormy Blues”. As Schuller mentioned in his book, “Fine and Mellow” became Holiday’s most requested song. On the other hand, Louis Armstrong’s improvisations and his approach to the melody while singing, like a trumpet player rather than a singer, impressed Holiday a lot. In Gleason’s book, Holiday states: “I don’t think I’m singing. I think I played a wind instrument. I try to improvise like Lester Young, Louis Armstrong or any other instrumentalist I love. That’s how I felt. I hate to say it straight.”
Holiday’s musical style developed in parallel with her life experiences. She sang as she lived, wrote as she sang. Lyrics have been of great importance in her singing. She reshaped the melodies by using the lyrics. The songs she wrote, the words and her soft voice like no other remained from her tragic life story, which prevented her success both in her life and after her death.
Songs written or written by Billie Holiday:
1. “Billie’s Blues” (1936) Columbia Records, JATB Publishing Co.
2. “Everything Happens for the Best” (1939) Columbia Records (publisher unknown)
3. “Fine and Mellow” (1939) Columbia Records, publishing company E. B. Marks
4. “Long Gone Blues” (1939) Columbia Records, publishing company E. B. Marks
5. “Our Love is Different” (1939) Columbia Records (publisher unknown)
6. “Don’t Explain” (1939) Decca Records, publishing company Northern Music Inc.
7. “Tell Me More and More, And Than Some” (1940) publishing company E. B. Marks
8. “God Bless the Child” (1941) Columbia Records, publishing company E. B. Marks
9. “Now or Never” (1949) Decca Records
10. “Stormy Blues” (1954) Verve Records, publishing company Northern Music
11. “Lady Sings the Blues” (1956) Verve Records, publishing company Northern Music
12. “Left Alone” publishing company Mal Waldron
13. “Who Needs You” publishing company E. B. Marks
14. “Say I’m Yours Again” publishing company E. B. Marks
15. “Preacher Boy” publishing company E. B. Marks
16. “Please Don’t Do It Here” publishing company E. B. Marks
17. “Somebody’s On My Mind” Published by International Music
18. “Close Dem Eyes My Darlin’” Published by International Music
19. “Lost and the Crossroads of Love” is out of print
Chilton, John: Billie’s Blues: The Billie Holiday Story 1933-1959, Da Capo Press, 1975
Holiday, Billie; Dufty, William: Lady Sings the Blues, Harlem Moon Broadway Books, 1956
Göksu, Ece: An Analytical Look at Selected Billie Holiday Compositions and Their Lyrics, 2009
Feather, Leonard; Gitler, Ira: The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz, 1999
Gleason, Ralph J.: Celebrating the Duke and Louis, Bessie, Billie, Carmen, Miles, Dizzy and Other Heroes, 1975
Schuller, Günther: Swing Era: The Development of Jazz 1930-1945, 1989
Gourse, Leslie: The Bllie Holiday Companion: Seven Decades of Commentary, 1997