The Sunday Dozen: Billie Holiday

I was an obsessive moviegoer when I was young. I’d go 2 or 3 times a week often to double features. I’m not sure when they stopped having those, but I used to blissfully spend hours in the dark watching movies.

There was an old Fox theatre in Redwood City, California that played second run movies. They charged a dollar; one of my friends used the term bones for dollars, so naturally we called the theatre The Bone. Why not?

I first saw Lady Sings The Blues at The Bone. As I said yesterday, it was when I discovered the music of Billie Holiday. Like most Hollywood biopics it wasn’t entirely accurate, but it opened the door to some great music.

I found a compilation album at a used record store not long thereafter and wore the LP out. I was hooked.

Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan. She had a difficult, dramatic, and tragic life. She died way too young in 1959. I’m not here to write about her hard life but about her marvelous music.

Billie started recording in 1935 and released her final album of new material Lady In Satin in 1958. Along the way, she played with many of the greats of her era: Teddy Wilson, Lester Young, Louis Armstrong, Artie Shaw, Count Basie; the list is seemingly endless.

As a singer, Billie was noteworthy for her unique phrasing. Nobody else sounded like Billie Holiday. That’s the mark of a great singer.

Like many great artists, Billie Holiday transcended both her era and genres. She’s been called a jazz singer, blues singer, pop singer. She was a GREAT singer.

Billie had a voluminous recording catalog, so thanks to the good people at, I’m focusing on the songs she was first to record as well as her own efforts as a songwriter. It’s a pity that she didn’t write more songs as they’re among her finest work.

Because of this selection process some of Billie’s hits didn’t make the list. I’ll make up for that with some lagniappe selections at the end.

As always, the list is in chronological order and reflects my personal taste.

We begin in 1937 with Easy Living. It features the piano stylings of the great Teddy Wilson. It was one of Billie’s first hits.

Strange Fruit is Billie’s most political record. It’s about a scourge of the time: lynching. It was written by Abel Meeropol DBA Lewis Allan. Meeropol later adopted the two sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after their execution. Abel was a mensch.

Fine and Mellow is one of the singer’s own compositions. Strangely enough, it was the B-Side of the Strange Fruit single. It B fine and mellow and features the great Lester Young on sax.

Ghost Of Yesterday is one of Billie’s torchiest torch songs. The melody is as haunting as the title.

I Hear Music is a chipper song written by Burton Lane and Frank Loesser for the movie Dancing On A Dime. An unforgettable song from a forgettable movie. Billie was the first of many artists to record it.

God Bless The Child is perhaps the best loved of Billie’s songwriting efforts. It was written in collaboration with Arthur Herzog Jr.

Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be) was a big hit for the singer in 1945 on both the R&B and pop charts. Another day, another Lady Day torch song.

That Ole Devil Called Love was another B-Side that became a standard. It’s downright devilish.

Don’t Explain was also co-written by Billie and Arthur Herzog Jr. It was supposedly inspired by Billie’s man cheating on her: “Take a bath, don’t explain.”

Here’s a sad song to wake up to:

I’ve always been crazy about Crazy He Calls Me. Sure, I’m crazy.

I began this post with a discussion of the 1972 biopic with Diana Ross and Billy D. Williams, Lady Sings The Blues. Here’s the song itself.

It was written by Billie and Herbie Nichols. It’s an elegant way to conclude the Billie Holiday Dozen.

It’s lagniappe time. Here are a few of Billie’s finest covers.

Finally, a 21st Century interpretation of Don’t Explain by Chan Marshall DBA Cat Power.

The last word goes to Diana Ross and Billie Holiday:

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