Today (7 April) marks 100 years since the birth of jazz legend Billie Holiday. Here, John Szwed – author of Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth – pays homage to the iconic singer with his five favourite tracks. As well as the videos below, we’ve put the songs into a Spotify playlist, so you can listen while you read.
1. “Foolin’ Myself” (1937) is a fine example of Holidays’ musicianship in her early years. She improvises freely on the original melody, paring away anything she doesn’t need, and moves in and out of the rhythm set by the band. She’s sometimes behind the beat, at others right on it, yet always singing with excellent diction and hitting the notes in perfect tune.
2. “No Regrets” (1936) is one of her lesser known recordings, but it is a sharp reminder that Holiday was not always Our Lady of Sorrows. Sung at a brisk walking tempo, it’s almost a cheerful farewell to an affair of the heart, a matter-of-fact acknowledgement of the lessons learned. It makes a fascinating contrast to Edith Piaf’s more famous “Non, je ne regrette rien” with its MGM-like production with martial fanfares and drums.
3. “Strange Fruit” (1939) is the song that shocked and still shocks listeners with its cold recounting of a lynching. It was the recording that pushed the pop song to a new level of maturity, and at the same time one that displays her ability to tell a story by singing close to her own speaking style.
4. “Love for Sale” (1952) is the most intimate of all the songs she recorded, a straightforward, understated duo with pianist Oscar Peterson, and one she seldom if ever sang in live performances. Like “Gloomy Sunday” and “Strange Fruit,” it was sometimes banned from radio play.
5. “You’ve Changed” (1958) was recorded the year before her death at age 44 for the album Lady in Satin. Her voice had lost much of it its edge, a point emphasized by the close miking and fine quality of the recording. Some find this painful listening, the death throes of a great vocalist, while others hear it as a distillation of all that was fine and moving in her singing. She thought it was one of her best recordings.
Happy Birthday “Lady Day”. You can also listen to John Szwed’s playlist on Spotify:
John Szwed’s Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth, published by William Heinemann, is out now.