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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Billie Holiday’s fame and influence persevere despite tumultuous personal life

Billie Holiday  (Wikimedia Commons)
By Ed Condran For The Spokesman-Review

Ray Charles was busted for possession of heroin in 1965. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were arrested for a variety of substances in 1967. The list of iconic musicians, Jimi Hendrix, Paul McCartney and John Lennon, who suffered a similar fate and walked a long and winding road, seems endless.

One of the first to deal with such a crisis was the legendary Billie Holiday. The 75th anniversary of Holiday’s release from a West Virginia prison after nearly a year behind bars for heroin possession arrives next Thursday.

Holiday was one of the first to come back from such a charge and she did so in reluctant fashion. Shortly after Holiday’s release, the jazz and blues star sold out Carnegie Hall. She was uncertain how she would be received, but she was not canceled.

Her fans continued to be entranced by her otherworldly voice. There is no singer quite like Holiday, who continued on as a favorite. However, her success and life was fleeting, because she passed away at 43 in 1959.

It was a short life for Holiday but it was an impactful existence. There’s a notable local connection for Holiday. Mildred Bailey, who grew up in Spokane and was a jazz star during the 1920s, employed Holiday’s mother as a housekeeper before Holiday reached the upper echelon of music.

Jazz vocalist Julia Rinker, who is Bailey’s niece, notes how big of an effect Bailey had on Holiday. “My aunt had a huge influence on (jazz vocalist) Ella (Fitzgerald), Billie and myself,” Rinker said.

Bailey headlined Hollywood clubs during the Roaring ’20s while performing jazz, pop songs and vaudeville standards. Bailey blew up by landing a gig with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in 1929, who were essentially the Beatles of the time.

“Paul Whiteman and his group were the biggest stars of their day and Mildred became the biggest thing in his band,” Spokane musician and filmmaker Garrin Hertel said. “Mildred was the first woman to front a national orchestra. Mildred paved the way for the careers of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.”

Bailey inexplicably fell through the cracks of history while Holiday and Fitzgerald have never gone out of style. The former is among the first to move audiences with her intense blues songs.

There was no one quite like Holiday, who experimented with the beat and melody. She often phrased behind the beat and sang in a manner, which she appropriated from trumpeter Louis Armstrong. Holiday acknowledged that she tried to sound like a horn and it worked for her.

Such classic Holiday tunes as “Strange Fruit,” “Don’t Explain” and her lovely composition “God Bless This Child” continue to endure.

Holiday took chances and was on the level of Frank Sinatra and Fitzgerald. She led a turbulent life, surviving a series of abusive relationships, drug addictions and bouts with depression.

After Holiday was released from prison, her criminal record made it difficult for her to obtain a cabaret card, so nightclub performances didn’t happen. However, her drug issues didn’t matter in Europe. Holiday enjoyed a very successful tour across the Atlantic in 1954.

However, her issues with heroin continued and ultimately ended Holiday’s life. During the final year, Holiday made two more appearances in Europe before collapsing in May of 1959 of heart and liver disease. Holiday died in July of 1959 in New York.

But Holiday’s exquisite music lives on and there was never anyone quite like the unique and brilliant singer-songwriter.