Billie Holiday

By: Adam McGovern
April 7, 2015


Ol’ bluest-eye, Frank Sinatra, had an idol and it was BILLIE HOLIDAY (born Eleanora Fagan 1915, died Lady Day 1959). The singer who dominated the 20th century came to pay last respects to the singer who defined it, thanking her on a deathbed guarded by armed cops who’d busted her for drugs. Everyone who saw her at that point seems to tell of her issuing not encouraging advice but tart, often hilarious warnings, and she’d be right, a prophet of musical possibilities and mass emotional communion who’d been swindled down to 70 cents in the bank when she died, a titan of creative expression who would stand taller in death decades later, when our perspective of what’s most lasting in human song got desegregated. That voice, swinging around corners and meeting you when your ears catch up, was the frequency of a miraculous resourcefulness; that phrasing, broken at odd durations, the caution of someone watching their back as much as the horizon. Anything could happen but nothing couldn’t be taken away. It was a voice built to outlast her, creased with sweetness in her peak years, halting with hard-won insight nearer the end, a groove cut in our consciousness that echoed how hard it is to go on and how high a point you can hit when you go beyond what they tell you is possible. There are singers who can “do” much more but don’t know half as much about what to do; Holiday, beyond technique, taught a generation of performers how to feel, and showed an eternity of listeners that it’s all right to. She is survived by her spirit, the resolve of someone who’s seen the worst and makes it all sound better, the note that they, and even she, could never break.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Bronislaw Malinowski, Bobby Bare.

READ MORE about members of the New Gods Generation (1914-23).


HiLo Heroes, Jazz, Music