One night in 1939, Billie Holiday stood on stage in New York City and sang for the first time a song that may be the most harrowing ever written. A lament for the racist lynchings which were still commonplace across America’s Deep South, an audible gasp went up from the racially integrated audience as she sang:
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
The shocking lyrics and the searing pain which is evident in Holiday’s voice, make “Strange Fruit” unlike anything else in popular music. When she performed “Strange Fruit” live, she closed her show with the song for there was nothing that could follow. Bar staff were ordered stop serving and the room was darkened except for a single spotlight on Holiday's face, as she stood with eyes closed, as if evoking a prayer.
“Strange Fruit” has since been hailed as the song that birthed the civil rights movement and in 1999 Time magazine named it "Best Song of the 20th Century”. The song also seemed to sum up Holiday’s life. “Strange Fruit” described a tragedy but was an artistic triumph, just as the singer herself transcended early poverty, addiction, brutal treatment by the men in her life and institutionalised racism to become a dazzling talent and one of the most expressive singers of all time. “Strange Fruit” closes this collection in tribute to the way Holiday performed the song in concert. Yet as the other selections on this disc show, it represented only one facet of her artistry.
Whether she was performing blues, jazz, Tin Pan Alley pop, Broadway show tunes or European cabaret songs, Billie Holiday had a way of making every song she sang sound like her own uniquely personal property.
Born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia, the daughter of an unwed teenage couple, not long after her birth, her father Clarence Holiday (whose surname she would later adopt) abandoned his family and she was largely raised by relatives. By the age of nine she had been sent to reform school and her formal education ended when she was 11. By 1929 she was living in Harlem with her mother and was working as a prostitute. Following a police raid she was sent to the workhouse. On her release she began singing in nightclubs and made her first recordings in 1933, after being discovered by Columbia executive John Hammond, who described her as the first female vocalist he’d ever heard who could sing “like an improvising jazz genius."
The material included in this collection was recorded in the 1930s and 1940s when her voice was at its most potent. She is accompanied by some of the finest bands of the era, led by Teddy Wilson, Count Basie, Eddie Heywood, Paul Whiteman, Benny Carter, Artie Shaw and Sy Oliver as well as great musicians including the saxophonist Lester Young (who named her ‘Lady Day’) and Louis Armstrong (with whom she duets delightfully on “My Sweet Hunk O’ Trash”).
She died in 1959 at the age of 44, from cirrhosis of the liver and heart disease caused by her chronic drinking and drug addiction. She had been swindled out of her earnings and was almost penniless and even as she lay on her death bed she was arrested for possession of narcotics and a police guard placed in her room. To the end the personal tragedy of her life and the genius of her singing seemed to be intertwined.