Few singers in jazz history had the ability to inject as much emotion into a song as Billie Holiday. From her subtle changes in the melody and timing of a piece to her ability to inject sorrow, heartache, and also joy and enthusiasm into a lyric, she brought a unique, personal interpretation to dozens of songs.
She also co-wrote some numbers, including Fine and Mellow and God Bless the Child, and she made headlines singing Strange Fruit, a protest song about a Southern lynching. One reason she was capable of such intense experession in her singing was the sorrow and hardship of her own life.
Growing up on the poverty line in a single parent family, she had experienced abuse and prostitution by her mid-teens. At eighteen she was singing in New York, when entrepreneur John Hammond encouraged her to record with Benny Goodman. She went on to make dozens of small band discs, the majority with pianist Teddy Wilson, which are small miracles of the swing era.
She sang at Barney Josephson's Cafe Society club in Greenwich Village, and specialised in haunting ballads. Although she fronted both Count Basie's and Artis Shaw's big bands for short period, she was at her best with just a rhythm section. From the early 1940s her life was a constant battle with drug addiction, plus a series of tempestuous relationships with her husbands or long-term male partners.
By the 1950s, her voice could sound careworn and world-weary, but she maintained the ability to project raw emotion, right up to the end of her short life. Musically, she formed a particularly successful partnership with tenorist Lester Young and their recordings together show the strong empathy between them.
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