My Personal Top 10 Female Singers – No 7
…in no particular order & with my favorite recording…
Number Seven: Billie Holiday
How one song she sang embodied racial crimes in America: “Strange Fruit”.
Billie Holiday performs at the Downbeat club in New York, 1947 – Photograph by William Gottlieb
Billie Holiday hardly needs introducing and I want to concentrate on one song in particular: “Strange Fruit” (click on link to see rare live performance). Her haunting voice sets the tone and serves as a powerful tool of protest and accusation.
Nicknamed “Lady Day” by her friend and musical partner Lester Young, Billie Holiday had a seminal influence on jazz and pop singing. Her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo. Frank Sinatra said;
“Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular music…”
“Strange Fruit” originated as a poem called “Bitter fruit” written in 1937 by American writer, teacher and songwriter Abel Meeropol under his pseudonym Lewis Allan, as a protest against lynchings. In the poem, Meeropol expressed his horror at lynchings, inspired by Lawrence Beitler’s photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana:
Lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith
Billie Holiday first performed the song at Café Society in 1939. It is hard to believe, but when she approached her recording label, Columbia, about the song, the company feared reaction by record retailers in the South, as well as negative reaction from affiliates of its co-owned radio network, CBS. When Holiday’s producer John Hammond also refused to record it, she turned to her friend Milt Gabler, whose Commodore label produced alternative jazz.
Opened in 1938, Café Society was New York City’s first racially integrated nightclub.
Holiday sang “Strange Fruit” for Gabler a cappella, and moved him to tears. Columbia allowed Holiday a one-session release from her contract in order to record it. Because Gabler was worried the song was too short, he asked pianist Sonny White to improvise an introduction; on the recording, Holiday starts singing after 70 seconds. In 1939 the record sold a million copies, in time becoming Holiday’s biggest-selling record.
Original record of “Strange Fruit” (click on link to hear the 1939 recording)
The song was covered many times since, by artists as varied as Nina Simone, Diana Ross, Sting and Annie Lennox.