April 7, 2011

Singing the blues

Billie Holiday photo by William Gottleib.

Billie Holiday was born on this date in 1915 to a 14-year-old and things only got worse after that.  Left with various relatives for the first ten years of her life while her mother looked for work, raped when she was 11, working in a brothel when she was 13  – with her mother – and then sent to prison for prostitution, it is almost surprising that she succumbed to drug addiction as late in life as she did. Needless to say, she was for the most part cheated out of the money she earned as a singer and when she died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1959, she died penniless.  Every heartbreaking detail is here.

Nonetheless, she managed to give the world a lot of beautiful music – in the clip below, the voice is going, but the soul is all there. Strange Fruit, a song about lynching, was written by Abe Meeropol, about whom more at a later date.  Originally recorded by Holiday in 1939, the version here is from a British television program as I recall, sometime in the early ’50s.

A word about the photo – it was taken by Downbeat magazine photographer William Gottleib, whose work included shots of just about every important jazz performer of the post-war era.  Mr. Gottleib was not only an excellent photographer, but an exceptional human being – he left instructions that all of his photographs were to be released to the public domain.  The Gottleib Collection is now in the Library of Congress.



  1. One sad story but with her singing as it’s redemption. Thank you Jean.


    Comment by avery — April 8, 2011 @ 10:52 am | Reply

  2. wow that was intense…she was AWESOME 😉


    Comment by nina c — April 8, 2011 @ 12:02 pm | Reply

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