Billie Holiday was raped when she was 10 and again when she was 12. It was enough to turn her off to men for a long, long time. Practically raised in a Baltimore whorehouse, she’d do favors for the working girls in exchange for the honor of sitting in the parlor to listen to Louie Armstrong records. In recitations from Holiday’s auto-biography, Lady Sings The Blues, actress Angela Bassett runs the voodoo down, so to speak, in between lovingly recreated versions of songs associated with the great Lady Day by Esperanza Spaulding, Boz Scaggs, Rickie Lee Jones, A.J. Croce and others.
Billie up and moved to New York City at age 15 with her mom, finding a Harlem bar who would let her sing. Her voice was filled with such pain and emotion, it made grown men cry. Soon, she was a fixture at the bar, word got out and John Hammond came sniffin’ around. Yeah, the same John Hammond who also discovered Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.
To hear Deborah Cox revitalize “Fine And Mellow” is to discover the sexiness inside the song all over again. Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds takes “Strange Fruit,” the song most closely identified with Holiday, and wrings every last drop of anguish out of it (the fruit “hanging from the poplar tree” being the dead bodies of lynched blacks).
Billie Holiday died at 44 in 1959 from liver failure while policemen waited outside her hospital room to arrest her. Although she made hundreds of thousands of dollars for the record labels, she was hardly paid a damn dime.
In A Word: Haunting