Billie Holiday by 1939 was a known singer in the New York jazz scene who had done brief stints as a big band vocalist with Count Basie in 1937 and Artie Shaw in 1938. With Shaw’s band, she became one of the first black women to work with a white orchestra. She also had a number of popular songs by then, dating to 1933 and one of her first recordings, “Riffin the Scotch,” which she recorded with Benny Goodman. In fact, between 1934 and 1939, Billie Holiday had more than 30 singles that were later considered to be in the Top 20 of that era. Yet, despite her output and popular songs, she was not then a mainstream star; not a household word. But “Strange Fruit” was about to change that. However, the song was clearly a departure from her earlier work, as it had a very discomforting message. Still, it was this song that became something of dividing line in Holiday’s career, making her popular, and some say, changing her style as well. More on Holiday and her career in a moment. First, some background on the song.
“Strange Fruit” was first written as a poem by a Jewish high-school teacher from the Bronx, New York named Abel Meeropol, who also used the name Lewis Allan. Meeropol wrote his poem — about the 1930 lynching of two black men in Marion, Indiana – after seeing Lawrence Beitler’s photograph of the lynching. He first published his poem in the January 1937 edition of The New York Teacher, a union magazine. He later set the poem “Strange Fruit” to music and his song gained some success as a protest song in the New York area, performed at one point by black vocalist Laura Duncan at Madison Square Garden.In Greenwich Village, New York, Barney Josephson was the owner of a recently opened nightclub named Café Society, an integrated club that soon attracted an anti-establishment audience of college students, black intellec- tuals, and Jewish liberals. Band leader Benny Goodman, and a well-connected music writer/ jazz advocate named John Hammond (of the Vanderbilt family), were among the club’s early investors. Barney Josephson had either heard of “Strange Fruit” from friends, or was given a copy by Meeropol himself. In any case, he was quite taken with the song’s imagery and gave it to Billie Holiday, who was then performing at his club, hired at the suggestion of John Hammond. Holiday at first, was somewhat troubled by the song and put off by its theme, and told Josephson she wasn’t sure she wanted to sing it and would think it over. But she soon agreed to perform the song at Café Society; the main room there held about 220 people. She performed the song for the first time in January 1939. She continued using the song in her nightclub routine, although she was somewhat fearful of retaliation given the song’s charged content in those times.
Josephson, meanwhile, recognized the impact of the song and insisted that Holiday close all her shows with it. In her performance, just as the song was about to begin, waiters would stop serving, the club lights would go down, and a single spotlight would focus on Holiday as she began. During the musical introduction, Holiday would stand with her eyes closed – and as some saw it, as if she were evoking a prayer. With the final note of the song, all lights in the club would go dark, and when they came back on, Holiday would be gone from the stage. According to reports from band members, after performing the song Holiday would sometimes break down emotionally. “Strange Fruit,” in any case, became a regular part of Billie Holiday’s live performances, and the song’s reputation, at least initially, grew from her nightclub act. However, making a vinyl recording of the song for a larger public audience was another matter.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
Here is the fruit for the crows to pluck
Holiday had approached her own record label, Columbia, about recording the song. Columbia refused, fearing a backlash from Southern record retailers and negative reaction from affiliates in Columbia’s co-owned CBS radio network. She then turned to a friend, Milt Gabler, as Gabler’s record label, Commodore, produced alternative jazz. Gabler worked out an arrangement in 1939 with another label, Vocalion Records, to record and distribute “Strange Fruit.” Billie Holiday recorded the song in Commodore’s studios at two sessions – one in April 1939 and again later, in 1944. She would also record it at a later date for the Verve record label. “Strange Fruit” became controversial, and over the years, Holiday’s biggest selling record. But not at first. In fact, the song was banned on many radio stations.
Although the Commodore release of “Strange Fruit” did not get extensive radio play, the record sold well, which Gabler attributed in part to the record’s other song on the flip side, “Fine and Mellow,” which was a jukebox hit. But “Strange Fruit” also rose on the charts, according to one source, peaking at No. 16 on July 22, 1939. The song also helped put Billie Holiday in the national spotlight. “‘Strange Fruit’ was to Billie what ‘Of Human Bondage’ was to Bette Davis or ‘The Petrified Forest’ to Humphrey Bogart,” wrote Michael Brooks in 1991 liner notes to a Billie Holiday collection. “It brought her national recognition, fame and a very modest fortune. It also attracted celebrity hunters of the worst sort, plus the type of men who were interested in nothing but a free ride…” But some critics, Brooks among them, also believed that “Strange Fruit” changed Holiday’s style, and led her to take on other concerns of the oppressed with her music. “She began to live the part and see herself as the living symbol of injustice and oppression,” wrote Brooks. This change in Holiday’ style, lamented by some, was a gradual process in which she began to interpret her songs rather than just naturally sing them. Yet for many fans and critics, it was her musical interpretation and her singular vocal style in marking those interpretations, that made Holiday’s work so distinctive and impressionable.“Strange Fruit” remained in Holiday’s repertoire for twenty years. She persisted in using it, in part, she would later say, because it reminded her of what she believed happened to her father in 1937. ( Clarence Holiday, a musi- cian himself then on tour in Texas, developed a heavy cold in his travels that turned to pneumonia. However, he died needlessly at the age of 39 after he was denied medical treatment at a Dallas hospital because he was black.) Not everyone got the message in “Strange Fruit,” however. In fact, decades after she had first performed the song, Holiday would express frustration with those not understanding the song’s message. In one 1958 interview, explaining how some folks missed the point, Holiday said: “They’ll ask me to ‘sing that sexy song about the people swinging’.”
David Margolick, who published a book about Holiday and the song in April 2000, explains that “Strange Fruit” has defied easy musical categorization over the years, and consequently, has not received thoughtful study by social historians and other analysts. “It’s too artsy to be folk music, too explicitly political and polemical to be jazz,” he explains. But his book – Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe Society, And An Early Cry For Civil Rights – provides an in-depth look at the song, its artist, and the times. “Surely,” he says, “no song in American history has ever been guaranteed to silence an audience or to generate such discomfort.” In 2002, the Library of Congress added the song to the National Recording Registry. “Strange Fruit” is also included on the “Songs of the Century” list, an education project of the Recording Industry Association of America, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Scholastic, Inc. — a project that aims to “promote a better understanding of America’s musical and cultural heritage” in American schools.
Nicknamed “Lady Day” by her friend and musical partner, saxophonist Lester Young, Billie Holiday became an influential force in jazz and popular music from the mid-1930s through the 1950s. She had a novel way of phrasing and manipulating a song’s lyrics when she performed – a unique vocal style and tempo that was inspired by the jazz music itself. Holiday became known for that style, and was admired worldwide for her deeply personal, intimate approach to her music. Critic John Bush wrote that she “changed the art of American pop vocals forever.”
Holiday co-wrote a share of her songs, and several of them became jazz standards, such as “God Bless the Child”, “Don’t Explain,” “Fine and Mellow,” and “Lady Sings the Blues.” She also became famous for singing jazz standards including “Easy Living,” “Summertime,” and “Good Morning Heartache.”Billie Holiday was born in April 1915, and her birthplace was believed to be Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, although there is some uncertainty about her records. She was then named either Eleanora Fagan or Elinore Harris, according to differing sources. Her early childhood, in any case, was difficult and unsettled, as she was cared for by a succession of relatives and others, mostly in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1925, at about age nine, truancy from school landed her in a reform school for troubled African American girls. Some reports say she was raped at age 10 by a neighbor. By age 14 she was living in a brothel with her mother who had turned to prostitution in order to survive. Billie too, was used for prostitution. Arrested with her mother when the brothel was raided, only more hard times appeared to be in Billie’s future.
Through her travail, however, music had offered her some refuge, as she had listened to the music of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. In 1929, with an urge to try it for herself, she teamed up with a neighbor, tenor sax player named Kenneth Hollan, and began performing at clubs in New York city. In 1931, she began using the name “Billie Holiday,” taken from a combination of the name her favorite actress, Billie Dove, and her father, Clarence Holiday, who had played with Fletcher Henderson’s band as a guitarist. By the end of 1932, at the age of 17, she began working at a club called Covan’s (also known by some as Monette’s) on West 132nd Street, where she was heard by Benny Goodman, John Hammond, and others. The first official recognition of her talents seems to have come from Hammond who heard her at Covan’s and wrote in the April 1933 issue of Melody Maker that she was “a real find,” calling her “incredibly beautiful and sings as well as anybody I ever heard.” Billie Holiday made her recording debut with Benny Goodman in late 1933, producing two songs: “Your Mother’s Son-In-Law” and “Riffin’ the Scotch.” The latter reached No. 6 on the pop charts in late 1933 and early 1934.With her expressive and sometimes melancholy voice, Holiday went on to record and perform with a number of jazz greats in the 1930s – pianist Teddy Wilson, saxophonist Lester Young, Count Basie’s orchestra, Artie Shaw and his orchestra, and others. She also made several singles with Goodman, including “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Miss Brown to You.”
In 1935 she appeared in Duke Ellington’s film short Symphony in Black, which featured his extended piece ‘A Rhapsody of Negro Life’. It won an Academy Award as the best musical short subject and also helped introduced Holiday to a broader audience, as she played a woman being abused by her lover and sang “The Saddest Tale.” In 1933-34, Holiday was signed to Brunswick Records by John Hammond to record current pop tunes with Teddy Wilson, converting them to the new “swing” style for the growing jukebox trade. It was 1937 when she joined Count Basie’s band, then on tour. This was also when Lester Young – who played tenor saxophone and became one of Holiday’s closest friends – gave her the nickname “Lady Day.” In return, she called him “Prez,” which meant he was pretty special in her book, too. The two produced some near-perfect musical collaborations, according to critics – heard on songs like “This Year’s Kisses” and “Mean To Me.”In 1938, she worked with Artie Shaw’s band, becoming one of the first female African American vocalists to work with a white orchestra. Still, in traveling with Shaw’s orchestra and others, Holiday suffered many racial indignities on the road from hotels and restaurants that would not admit or serve her. Even with Shaw’s orchestra, some backers and promoters objected to Holiday for racial reasons, and others for her unique vocal style. At the time, some listeners were not ready for the interpretive liberties she took with old standards. In New York in 1938, Artie Shaw’s band was playing at the upscale Lincoln Hotel, with nationwide broadcasts over the RCA radio network. However, some of the sponsors had complained about Billie “ruining the tune,” and so, she was limited to one or two songs during the hour show. In addition to this, the owner of the Lincoln Hotel objected to Billie sitting at the bar or mixing with customers, and was also told she could only use the tradesmens’ entrance and the freight elevator. Although Shaw and his bandmates were outraged over Billie’s treatment, and objected to the owner, Billie had to comply. In any case, she ended up leaving Shaw’s orchestra. Still, her music then was becoming recognized nationally. In September 1938, Holiday’s single “I’m Gonna Lock My Heart” ranked 6th among most-played songs that month. Her record label, Vocalion, listed the single as its fourth best-seller in that same period, with others later ranking it as the No. 2 most popular song of that time. But by the late 1930s, Billie Holiday was out her own, and that’s when she began freelancing and performing at the Café Society nightclub. In addition to debuting “Strange Fruit” there, she also debuted “God Bless the Child” there, a song which she also co-wrote that became a hit and sold more than million copies.
In 1944, Holiday garnered her first jazz critics’ poll victory – Esquire magazine’s “Gold Award” for best female vocalist. In 1945 she produced, among others, the No.5 R&B hit “Lover Man.” However, when her mother died in October 1945, Holiday’s use of alcohol and drugs escalated. Because of her narcotics conviction, Holiday’s New York “cabaret card” – a license to perform in nightclubs – was revoked.Still, she remained a major star in the jazz world, and also appeared in a minor role as a maid, along with her idol, Louis Armstrong, in the 1947 film, New Orleans. But also that year, Holiday was arrested and convicted for narcotics possession, sentenced to one year in a federal rehabilitation prison. In 1948, just ten days after serving her term and leaving prison, she performed to a packed house at Carnegie Hall on March 27th. She sang about 30 songs during that appearance. But beyond such high profile concerts, Holiday’s life as a working singer was severely restricted. Because of her narcotics conviction, Holiday’s New York “cabaret card” – a license to perform in nightclubs – was revoked. One New York club, however, The Ebony Club, allowed her to perform, as the club’s owner, John Levy, would became her boyfriend and manager by the end of the 1940s. Levy, however, was among those men in Holiday’s life who took advantage of her. Around this time as well, she was arrested on narcotics charges, but later acquitted.Still, hard living had taken a toll on Holiday’s voice and health through the 1950s, but she continued to tour and record. In 1952, she began recording for Norman Granz, the owner of several small jazz record labels. Two years later, in 1954, Holiday had a hugely successful European tour. In 1956, renewed public attention came her way with the release of her life story in print, Lady Sings the Blues, a book written by William Duffy, although parts of it were later questioned for accuracy. On November 10, 1956, in New York city, she gave two concerts at Carnegie Hall before packed audiences. Around this time, Holiday became involved with Louis McKay. The two were arrested on narcotics charges in 1956, and they married in Mexico the following year. Reportedly, like other men in her life, McKay used Holiday’s name and money to advance himself.
In 1957, Billie Holiday performed at the Sugar Hill nightclub in Newark, New Jersey and the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. And despite trouble she had been experiencing with her voice, she managed to give an impressive performance on the 1957 CBS television broadcast, The Sound of Jazz. This one-hour TV show, which aired on December 8, 1957, was one of the first major programs featuring jazz on American television. It brought together an all-star cast of 32 leading jazz musicians including: Count Basie, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Jo Jones and Coleman Hawkins, Henry “Red” Allen, Vic Dickenson, Roy Eldridge, Pee Wee Russell, and younger musicians such as Gerry Mulligan, Thelonious Monk, and Jimmy Giuffre. But one of the high points of the show was the performance of “Fine and Mellow,” reuniting Billie Holiday and her old friend Lester Young, who played the first solo. Music critic and writer Nat Hentoff, who was also involved with the telecast, recalled that when Young rose to play his part:
“… he played the purest blues I have ever heard, and [he and Holiday] were looking at each other, their eyes were sort of interlocked, and she was sort of nodding and half–smiling. It was as if they were both remembering what had been… And in the control room we were all crying…”Although Billie Holiday’s recordings and record sales had suffered in later years, in 1958 she recorded Lady in Satin with the Ray Ellis Orchestra for Columbia. That album showcased Holiday’s by then, rougher-sounding voice which still, nonetheless, could convey emotional intensity. Ellis himself would later comment on Billie’s performance at the time the album was recorded:
“…I would say that the most emotional moment was her listening to the playback of “I’m a Fool to Want You.” There were tears in her eyes… After we finished the album I went into the control room and listened to all the takes. I must admit I was unhappy with her performance, but I was just listening musically instead of emotionally. It wasn’t until I heard the final mix a few weeks later that I realized how great her performance really was.”
On March 15, 1959, Billie’s old friend, Lester Young, died in New York at the age of 49. Young’s passing was taken very hard by Holiday, then believing her own time was limited. She gave her final performance in New York City on May 25, 1959. Not long after, Holiday was admitted to the hospital for heart and liver problems. She was addicted to heroin at that point, and was even arrested for possession while in the hospital – a police action some felt overdone since by then she was very weak and on her deathbed. On July 17, 1959, Holiday died from alcohol- and drug-related complications. She was 44 years old. Her bank account at the time recorded a few dollars at best, though royalties due her at that year’s end totaled some $100,000.
Years after her death, Billie Holiday received numerous awards and other cultural recognition. In 1972, Diana Ross, former lead singer of the 1960s’ Motown group The Supremes, played the role of Billie Holiday in the film Lady Sings the Blues, which sparked renewed interest in Holiday’s music. A number of Billie Holiday songs have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, including: “God Bless The Child” (1976), “Strange Fruit” (1978), “Lover Man” (1989), “Lady In Satin” (2000), and “Embraceable You” (2005). She has also received Grammys in the Best Historical Album category: Billie Holiday – Giants of Jazz (1980), Billie Holiday – The Complete Decca Recordings (1992), The Complete Billie Holiday (1994), and Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday (2002).Billie Holiday has also been honored with a star on the Holly- wood Walk of Fame and in September 1994, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor. Numerous fellow musicians have covered her songs, with some offering special tributes. In 1988, the Irish rock group U2 released a Billie Holiday tribute song titled “Angel of Harlem.” In 2000, with Diana Ross as her presenter, Billie Holiday was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Abel Meeropol, meanwhile, the author of the original poem and song, “Strange Fruit,” sustained his family, in part, on his share of the music publishing fees from that song and another he wrote about racial intolerance, “The House I Live In,” a song that Frank Sinatra and others sang in the 1940s and 1950s. But it was Billie Holiday’s interpretation and performances of “Strange Fruit” that helped bring more public attention to the racial injustices of that time and earlier years.
See also at this website, “Noteworthy Ladies,” a topics page with 36 additional story choices on women who have made their mark in various fields. More stories on music history may be found at the Annals of Music category page. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle
Date Posted: 7 March 2011
Last Update: 26 November 2016
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Jack Doyle, “Strange Fruit, 1939,”
PopHistoryDig.com, March 7, 2011.
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