Where Billie Holiday Got Her Style

The young kids were always asking Billie Holiday where she got her style.

How’d it evolve? they wanted to know. Who influenced her?

And this woman with the gardenia in her hair, who had a voice that could leave the whole nightclub crying into its beer, who Sinatra said was the “greatest single musical influence” on him, this woman always wondered what she could tell the young kids.

The truth was that style of hers didn’t come from just any place.

“It’s not about working or arranging or rehearsing,” she wrote in her autobiography. And other than the Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong records she listened to as a kid scrubbing floors in a Baltimore whorehouse, there wasn’t anyone she knew of that had influenced her singing.

The truth was that style of hers came from some place fiercer, truer than all that.

“If you find a tune and it’s got something to do with you,” she wrote, “you don’t have to evolve anything. You just feel it, and when you sing it other people can feel it, too…Give me a song I can feel, and it’s never work.”

If she had to sing, “Doggie in the Window,” that would be work. But “The Man I Love”? She had lived songs like that. Singing them was no more work than sitting down and eating roast duck, she said. And she loved roast duck, she said.

So, when the young kids and Sinatra and the whole nightclub heard her sing those songs, what they heard was a woman who’d felt those songs, knew the rock bottom truth of those songs, laid her whole bare heart over those songs.

And “when I sing them,” this woman with the gardenia in her hair wrote, “I live them again and I love them.”

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