A hush descended on … my place. Because unfortunately, my dinner companions were all decades younger than I. They either had never heard of Billie Holiday or knew her name only on the basis of Diana Ross’s biopic — an unworthy, racist, untrue piece of crap, Miss Ross’s strenuous and Oscar-nominated acting effort notwithstanding. So they were quick to nod assessment to this asinine remark. What did they care? Dessert was on the way. Amy Winehouse is a crackhead with a deep voice. Miss Holiday was an artist who also happened to be a heroin addict.
In case any of you don’t know Billie, here’s what to know — she had a grueling childhood and an oft-grueling adult life. Heroin was her undoing; she died at 44. Her art was a voice that could break your heart or lift you up, often at the same time.
Billie had two voices: the clear, high tones of her youth, and the darker, ragged sound of her maturity. Hard living affected her voice, some say to its detriment. Not Mr. wOw. The radical alteration in her voice is similar to what happened to Judy Garland and Maria Callas. But Garland and Callas had huge instruments with great range; when they started to go off track, it became a train wreck of wobbling vibrato. Billie had a smaller voice and limited range. Heroin and misery bit into her in increments, slowly deepening her early chipper swing into soulful jazz and pop. The remnants of Billie’s voice were like a beautiful medieval tapestry, faded, but with some of the bolder dyes still visible, and more precious for their presence.
Listen to her first and last versions of “Strange Fruit” — that stunning recognition of racism — and hear the depth of feeling that living had wrought. If Mr. wOw had to recommend one and only one Billie Holiday album, it would have to be “Lady in Satin,” her last and most controversial recording. She — and her voice — were utterly shattered by then. She sings songs of lost love and abandoned hope: “I’m a Fool to Want You,” “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” ” I Get Along Without You Very Well,” “You’ve Changed.” It should be pathetic. It is not. The use of her interpretative skills, the challenge of her own experience lifts the material even higher.
Mr. wOw, to use one of the album’s own tracks, is “Glad to Be Unhappy” listening to “Lady in Satin.” It is a wallow in wrist slitting, but there is some odd uplift in her tone, still. It’s terrible to have suffered so, wonderful to have felt so much!
Mr. wOw tried to explain all this, simply, to his dinner companions. They exclaimed, “Oh, come on, you’ve got to love Amy Winehouse’s beehive?!”
No, I do not.
Mr. wOw fears the apocalypse is near. He is pulling out his vinyl copy of “Lady in Satin” tonight!