HAPPY BIRTHDAY BILLIE
by Madeleine Peyroux
I don’t think any sound can stop you in your tracks like the sound of Billie Holiday. It’s instant immersion, no distractions. When she did it to me, I was a teenage runaway aspiring to be a singer, or just to be somebody. I was struck with her simplicity, her power of suggestion, and a sense that we weren’t so different, she and I. Vulnerable and tough, blissful and forlorn, naive and bitter. I dug in deep.
Wherever I looked, I found more and more Billie. Ten volumes on Columbia Records with the small group sessions that would define an era’s sound and material. From the late thirties to early forties she recorded every song under the sun with the masters of understatement at her side: Teddy Wilson, Lester Young, Freddie Green, Philly Joe Jones. Each song has an alternate life below the surface, sometimes its best life, in her reading. In 1939 she stood still, bold, and strong, and performed Strange Fruit at every show. She was a force! It unleashed a racist campaign against her that would eventually take her life.
As I grew into singing, I wanted to dig deeper into Billie. I explored her later arrangements with Decca and Verve, and her final masterpiece, Lady in Satin. I had to watch out. With her, you could be swept away on a wild ride through the whole of comedy and tragedy. It was a ride from which, at times, I was afraid I might never return. There is a kind of despair that teens know well, and though I was singing her songs, I faced my own fears and tragedies. My inner demons and their voices overtook hers, and at eighteen I had to stop, to step back and deal with depression. But, as a dark and scary path becomes the path to triumph, I came through and I was given the chance to sing again.
Unbeknownst to me at first, my career would be an homage to Billie Holiday. By career I mean identity, sisterhood, tenacity and strength. In her company I’d found self-worth, kindness and love. This is not a wild ride from which one wants to return. No! It urges us onward! Pioneer, poet, martyr, woman: Happy Birthday Billie! In our ears you are still singing. In our hearts, you live forever.
Get “Keep Me In Your Heart For A While: The Best Of Madeleine Peyroux” on CD
© 2007.Rounder/Concord Music Group
Madeleine Peyroux’ first record resulted in her being referred to as the 21st century Billie Holiday, particularly owing to a “Gettin’ Some Fun Out of Life” cover and to “Hey Sweet Man”, an original song with a style highly reminiscent of Holiday. Time called the album “the most exciting, involving vocal performance by a new singer this year”.