Billie Holiday (née Eleanora Fagan) is a jazz legend that continues to be honored to this day. She was also the first Black vocalist to work with a white orchestra in 1937. Her varied vocals and compelling songs helped cement her place in music history.
With Holiday's documentary film Billie coming out soon on November 13, now is a good time to get acquainted with her career-defining hits. Here are five significant songs from Billie Holiday's career.
Not only is this one of her most well-known songs, but it sparked much controversy back in the late 1930s and early 40s. "Strange Fruit" is based off a poem written by Abel Meeropol and addresses racism in the American South, specifically lynchings.
Since it was a song protesting racism before the Civil Rights Movement, no record label would pick it up. Some radio stations outright banned "Strange Fruit." Holiday herself even said she feared retaliation every time she sang it, according to Paste.
Eventually, Commodore records put out the track after Milt Gabler was moved to tears from Holiday's a cappella performance of the song.
"Strange Fruit" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978 and was declared "Song of the Century" by Time Magazine in 1999.
"God Bless the Child"
Holiday first sang "God Bless the Child" along with "Strange Fruit" at the Café Society in Greenwich Village, the first integrated nightclub in New York City, in 1939. It was during this performance that Holiday developed her persona quirks, such as the gardenias in her hair and tilting her head back.
First recorded in 1941 under the Okeh label, "God Bless the Child" may have originated from a fight between her mother and money. "God bless the child that’s got his own," her mother said during the argument. Holiday used that as a starting point as she continued writing the song with Arthur Herzog, Jr.
The song became a hit, and she signed with Decca Records a couple years after the song's initial release. "God Bless the Child" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1976, two years before "Strange Fruit."
"Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?)," or just "Lover Man," is almost a culmination of Holiday's troubled love life. The jazz singer had a couple abusive relationships with men that took advantage of her wealth and status. Holiday herself did not write the song, the official website said it was written for her -- a woman yearning for her true "lover man."
Her official website said "Lover Man" was one of her signature songs and rightfully so. The 1944 version reached #5 on the R&B chart and #16 on pop in 1945. It would also go on to have several more recordings. "Lover Man" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1989.
"You're My Thrill"
Holiday is primarily known as a jazz singer, but she also influenced pop singing. That can be attributed to the song "You're My Thrill," particularly the 1946 recording.
During Holiday's time with Decca Records, the record label wanted to market her as something more than a jazz singer. This can be reflected in "You're My Thrill," which had a different sound compared to other jazz songs of the era. Some have even called it more commercial.
Whether it's considered more commercial or not, this song marked a significant point in Holiday's dabblings with pop singing. Paste said it was the most unique recordings Holiday has ever done thanks to the orchestral direction and her subtle vocals. Below is the 1949 version.
This song is so notable that it even became the title of an album. "(In My) Solitutde" was originally composed in 1934 by Duke Ellington, and the lyrics were written by Eddie DeLange and Irving Mills.
"Solitude," the song, debuted in Lady Day's first full-length album, which was released in by Clef Records in 1952. The haunting lyrics and Holiday's somber singing cemented it as one of the greats in her career. The album was reissued in 1956 by Verve Records and renamed Solitude due to it being considered a signature song in her discography.
"Many other singers have recorded this track, from Ella Fitzgerald to Etta James, but this song seems inextricably connected with Billie, whose minimalist phrasing and moody vocal timbre seemed to do it justice," Paste said.
Photos: Getty Images