Billie Holiday: Emotional Power Through Song Holiday became famous after she recorded "Strange Fruit," a 1939 protest song about lynchings of African-Americans. The haunting vocal offers a stark illustration of her greatest gift -- the ability to convey emotion.

Billie Holiday: Emotional Power Through Song

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Our series 50 Great Voices continues today with one of the most distinctive voices of all time.


M: (Singing) All of me, why not take all of me? Can't...

INSKEEP: Tom Vitale reports from New York.

TOM VITALE: Billie Holiday became famous after she recorded a 1939 protest song about lynchings of African-Americans. It was called "Strange Fruit."


M: (Singing) Southern trees bear a 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.

VITALE: Phil Schaap is curator of Jazz at Lincoln Center.

M: She speaks to your heart. She catches your ear. She reaches your mind, and she does this with an emotional power that, of course, is genius and is beyond words.


M: (Singing) Mamma may have. Papa may have. But God bless the child that's got his own, that's got his own.

VITALE: Billie Holiday was born in Philadelphia in 1915 and raised in Baltimore. As a girl, her idols were Louis Pops Armstrong and blues singer Bessie Smith.


M: (Singing) If I go to church on Sunday, sing the shimmy down on Monday, ain't nobody's business if I do.

VITALE: The late singer Abbey Lincoln reads from Holiday's autobiography, "Lady Sings the Blues."

M: A Victrola was a big deal in those days, and there weren't any parlors around that had one except Alice's. I spent many a wonderful hour there listening to Pops and Bessie. I remember Pops' recording of "West End Blues" and how it used to gas me. It was the first time I ever heard anybody sing without using any words.


M: (Singing) Wha-wha-da, wha-wha-lada, wha-la-da- la, la-da-di-di...

M: Her real vocal influence is Louis Armstrong.

VITALE: Phil Schaap has studied Louis Armstrong's influence on Billie Holiday closely. He's been demonstrating how Holiday mimics Armstrong's phrasing on his radio shows at Columbia University's WKCR for more than 30 years.

M: You really have to hear it, is what you have to do. My telling you that the phrasing over the rhythm that Louis Armstrong has is reprised and utilized in Billie Holiday's concept isn't telling you anything unless you actually go hear their records. I'd like you to hear Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong take a chorus of "Yours and Mine."

VITALE: Like a scientist in his laboratory, Phil Schaap takes Armstrong's and Holiday's versions of the same song, recorded in the same year, 1937. Then he adjusts the turntable pitch controls to speed up Armstrong's vocals...


M: (Singing) The stars that shine...

VITALE: ...and slow down Billie's.

M: (Singing) The stars that shine...

VITALE: Phil Schaap says if you listen closely, you can hear how Billie Holiday learned how to sing and swing at the same time from Louis Armstrong.

M: (Singing) The song of springtime, the lullaby of the fall...

M: (Singing) The song of springtime, the lullaby of fall...

M: She gets so much from Pops.

VITALE: And in 1949, she actually got to sing with him.


M: (Singing) You're very short on looks.

M: Here. Here. Here.

M: (Singing) Dumb when it comes to books.

M: Look out, baby. Watch it, honey.

M: (Singing) And you stay full of corn just like succotash.

M: What you want me to do in my idle moments?

M: (Singing) You're just a good for nothing but my sweet hunk of trash.

M: Let me get a word in there, honey. You're running your mouth.

VITALE: Singer Joni Mitchell says her two favorite vocalists are Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday, because they use their technical gifts to tell meaningful stories.

M: I think I took this from Piaf and Billie Holiday; that many of the so-called great singers love their notes more than their text. And those women never forgot what it was that they were singing about, so that the note almost played second position to the text. Not that there was anything wrong with the chosen notes. There was still beauty to them, but the emphasis was on telling the story from the heart.

VITALE: Jazz historian Phil Schaap says too much emphasis has been placed on the tragic aspects of Billie Holiday's life, and not enough on the glorious aspects of her voice.

M: She swings and invents. She innovates. She can compose on the fly. She can make you hear the rhythm section if it's not there, and make them play better if they are. And I think that's it. I think Billie Holiday is the greatest.

VITALE: For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.


M: (Singing) I've got those Monday blues straight through Sunday blues. Good morning, heartache...

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

M: (Singing) Good morning, heartache. You're the one who knew me when. Might as well get used to you hanging around. Good morning, heartache, sit down.

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