Remembering Billie Holiday on Her 100th Birthday

On April 7, 2015 serious jazz fans celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of incomparable vocalist Billie Holiday, who died in 1959 at age 44 but lives on in her music as a legend in a trio comprised of influential vocal artists Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. Aptly dubbed “Lady Day” by musician Lester Young for her innate elegance, Billie amazed as improvisational musician who sang every song differently each time while investing honest, sometimes passionate expression plus unique rhythmic phrasing behind the beat. She also composed memorable songs that sing of experienced love in “Don’t Explain” and life lessons learned growing up in poverty in “God Bless the Child” – overall adding up to a complete musical artist.

Billie Holiday.
Billie Holiday.

Marking her 100th birthday offers an opportunity to recall and share my experience as a young woman working in local television at WAAM (now WJZ) at a job checking the station log each day to bill sponsors for 10 and 20 second IDs – a job that offered perks including advanced notice of celebrity appearances at local entertainment venues so we could reserve seats. Thus it happened in the mid-1950s that I was able to get opening night tickets to a newly opened Baltimore club on North Avenue, and because of my friendship with Radio Station WITH program director Ellen Stoutenberg arranging with radio personality Chuck Richards – a singer who knew Billie – to supply a note for us so we could get backstage for us to meet Lady Day.

This experience became and remains a lifetime high and one I’ve shared and recorded informally only with radio jazz show host John Tegler, who read it every year on Billie Holiday’s birthday. John Tegler died last fall so it seems time to tell my never-published story more completely for publication in honor of Lady Day’s 100th birthday.

Excited to attend Billie Holiday’s opening show, Ellen and I were thrilled to have seats at the bar – as close as anyone could get to Billie. Her voice had then lost some of its early sweetness and most of the high notes. Maybe the voice was frayed and raw but the emotional intensity remained as expressed in soulful lyrics and her distinctive rhythm was solidly in place as a large element of her incomparable style plus something new that sounded like unvarnished truth, maybe laced with booze.

At this time Billie claimed to be drinking a fifth of gin and smoking five packs of cigarettes each day. She might have exaggerated those quantities, but she didn’t exaggerate the pain which was real and palpable in nearly every phrase she sang.  Not every song was a winner – a few currently popular ones were trite, not requiring Billie to invest much or give her much back either.

But there was much to savor when hearing the pure voice of Billie Holiday with no radio waves between us – only smoke-filled nightclub air. I was well aware I’d heard the best with Lady Day – jazz royalty.

At the end of the first show we went backstage with Chuck’s note in hand. At the door we were blocked by two rather menacing guys – presumably body guards. Explaining that we were friends of Chuck Richards, we asked if we might meet Miss Holiday, as we handed them Chuck’s note. Without a word they walked into an adjoining room.

A few minutes later Ms. Billie Holiday, appearing somewhat unsteady on her feet, came to greet us. She was a vision complete with her trademark gardenia in her hair, a lovely vision with café au lait skin and dreamy brown eyes.

Although she seemed willing to meet with us, Ellen and I felt guilty for invading her privacy. We told her that Chuck wanted her to know he would catch a later show, and she smiled in recognition, asking if he still sang, adding that he had “a beautiful voice.” As our conversation continued I was aware of her complete engagement, quick wit and focus along with her enormous dignity. Majestic in bearing, she wasn’t known as “Lady Day” for nothing.

After a few more minutes of conversation her interest seemed to wane. Then I told her how much we enjoyed her first show and asked if she planned to sing more of her standards in the second show, adding that I loved “Good Morning, Heartache” and “Don’t Explain” plus “Easy Livin’.” Momentarily I forgot I was talking to a star in my wanting her to know how much she meant to me.  When I looked into her eyes, a wonderful thing happened. I knew we had connected deeply so that I sensed her beautiful soul!

Audra McDonald in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill.' Photo by Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.
Audra McDonald in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.’ Photo by Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

Second show Lady Day sang in her haunting mellow way every song I’d mentioned.  Now 50 years later I savor the experience.  In these intervening years nobody has come close to her sound, which is still heard selling cars and on movie soundtracks and as background  at such Annapolis theater shows as Compass Rose’s fall production of Raisin in the Sun where Billie’s singing set the mood as nothing else could.

Only most recently in Audra McDonald’s Tony-awarded Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill did any singer approach Billie’s sound and actually live up to the A P hype “Close your eyes and Lady Day is back” for a most welcome return. This feat was achieved by a classically trained Julliard graduate who won her record-breaking sixth Tony Award with this Lady Day role to become the first to win in all four acting categories. A star of this caliber is nearly as rare as Lady Day, and it took about 40 years for Audra to arrive to make this happen – a fact that I’d like to believe causes Billie to smile from her starry space beyond.


Audra McDonald performs this Friday, March 27, 2015 at 8 PM at The Music Center at Strathmore. Purchase tickets online. Only a few seats remain.

The Billie Holiday website.

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Mary P. Johnson
In retirement, Mary P. Johnson became a freelance arts writer covering the Anne Arundel scene reviewing theater, opera, ballet, and occasionally profiling exhibiting gallery artists. Published every week for over 18 years continuing in the Baltimore Sun Anne Arundel Section, Mary also established arts coverage for the Severna Park Voice, where she wrote for ten years followed in 2011 by writing 11 months for several Patch publications in Anne Arundel and beyond. Mary is a long-time member of the American Theatre Critics Association, and also for ten years a member of JAWS, a national association of women journalists. Listed for the last 15 years in three of Marquis Who’s Who publications - American Women, America and the World, Mary also was twice nominated for the Annie Award in Literary Arts – an honor presented by the Arts Council of Anne Arundel County - which she regretfully declined for ethical reasons. Mary is a strong advocate for the resident companies of Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis and for Anne Arundel Community College’s performing arts companies. For more than 20 years she has served on the board of directors of the Performing Arts Association of Linthicum.



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