Music April 7, 2013
NOD TO THE GODS: Billie Holiday, 'Speak Low'

Eleanora Fagen, best-known by her stage name Billie Holiday, was one of the most renowned jazz singers of all time, and she was born today in 1915. We remember her tonight as we kick things off on the spirit of radio with her rendition of Kurt Weill's 'Speak Low'.

Holiday had a huge influence on jazz and pop vocal stylings, releasing over 100 records in her career and working alongside many of the greats, including Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

Her autobiography was transformed into the Academy Award-nominated film 'Lady Sings the Blues' in 1972, where Diana Ross portrayed her alongside a cast that included Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor. And tributes to her talent have continued through the years: U2's 'Angel of Harlem' was written in her honour, and she was inducted to the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.

The singer faced darkness and trouble throughout her life: she was sexually abused as a child, worked as a prostitute when she was only 13, and battled heroin addiction later in life.

But despite those challenges, her talent endured. When she was released from prison in 1948 after a sentence for narcotics possession, her Carnegie Hall comeback performance sold out so fast that she broke records at the time.

In July of 1959, she died of cirrhosis of the liver with only $0.70 in the bank; she was swindled out of her earnings during her last few years.

Her vocal range was only about an octave, but she could change a song with her inflection of words and pitches, phrasing and improvising like a horn player.

To get a taste of her stage presence, check out this performance of 'Strange Fruit', one of the first and most powerful anti-racist songs:

For further musical musings, new and old, join the collective for The Strombo Show on CBC Radio 2, every Sunday night at 8 pm. And if you'd like to catch up or re-listen, all of the episodes are archived on our Radio page.

Related:

NOD TO THE GODS: Guns N' Roses, 'Patience'

NOD TO THE GODS: Pink Floyd, 'Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)'

NOD TO THE GODS: Neil Young, 'Comes A Time'

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