It’s hard to imagine how anyone could begin with more obstacles to face – poverty and racism for starters with physical abuse and drug addiction down the road. With no status and no advantages she managed to create a lasting body of work and fundamentally changed the way people sing songs. Billie Holiday performed sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall and was also arrested on drug charges in a hospital bed during her final illness. Saying she had highs and lows doesn’t even begin to describe it.
What strikes me is how casually the world would have overlooked her, as countless millions born into similar circumstances have been. It is completely whimsical that we got to hear her voice at all – it could so easily have gone another way. Jazz impresario John Hammond went to a club to listen to a different singer but heard Billie Holiday instead. She caught a break and made a lasting impression, and as a result people will be listening to Billie Holiday long after the rest of us are forgotten.
Here she is with her voice weirdly out of synch to the video – so close your eyes if you have to. I’m guessing this is what the experts mean when they say she sang like a horn player, trading solos with the guys in the band.
So I guess we learn from this that talent can be found an appreciated in spite of adversity, though in the case of Billie Holiday you can’t say adversity was overcome. Her amazing emergence makes me think of a talk I heard a few weeks ago that had to do with the way diamonds are formed and brought to the surface. They are incredibly hard to find even if you know the conditions are right for diamonds to exist. There could be a diamond strike under your house, or under the parking lot across the street, but not necessarily both.
Ever stumble across an amazing, totally unexpected find?