Your Dose of Cool: Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday is one of the most influential singers and songwriters in jazz history. Frank Sinatra once said of Billie, “With few exceptions, every major pop singer in the US during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius. It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me.”

Over the course of her career, Billie sang with swing pianist Teddy Wilson, saxophonist Lester Young (who nicknamed Billie “Lady Day”), Count Basie and his Orchestra, and big band leader Artie Shaw.

billie holiday love songsBillie’s life was not easy by any means. She was born in Philadelphia on April 7th, 1915, to a young mother and absent father. She was left in the care of others for the majority of her childhood.  At age 13, Billie moved to Harlem with her mother, where they both worked as prostitutes. In 1929, their brothel was raided and the two were sent to prison. Billie was released at age 14 and began singing in nightclubs while still in Harlem.

As her presence grew, Billie painted her singer persona as a woman unlucky at love. Her voice was soft but powerful, somewhat weathered from wear—and full of pain, heartbreak, and longing. Even at her young age, she had many experiences to sing about, and she wanted her voice to be like a jazz instrument. Her main influences were Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith.

Racial equality was nowhere in sight during Billie’s time. She was of mixed ancestry, including African-American and Irish, and the color of her skin was unjustly used to treat her differently. Even as a featured singer, she had to enter into some nightclubs and venues through the back door or kitchen entrance. At times she wasn’t allowed to stand with the rest of the band on stage. People heckled her from the crowd and her angry responses were seen as “unprofessional.” She didn’t receive royalties for her recorded works, and was paid in flat fees. So when singles like “I Cried For You” sold 15,000 copies, she didn’t receive payment to match the work’s wildly popular reception.

billie holiday's greatest hitsAs an adult, Billie suffered from drug addiction and was arrested multiple times, even on her deathbed. She passed away on July 17th, 1959 from complications caused by cirrhosis of the liver. Even up to her death, Billie was hugely popular as a jazz singer and sold out entire venues when she performed. Her recorded works are some of the most treasured for jazz collectors.

Check out our selection of Billie Holiday albums on Murfie and get some Lady Day in your collection!

Bargain Hunt Giveaway: Tom Waits, Björk & Charles Mingus

The Murfie marketplace is full of ridiculous bargains. Working here at Murfie HQ, I see more great deals on the site than I could possibly justify snagging myself. That’s why I’ve decided to start the “Bargain Hunt Giveaway.”

Here’s how it works: When I see an awesome deal on an interesting album, I take note of it. I’ll spend $5 (total) on some great albums, talk about them a bit, then give them away to you!

For a chance to win, either comment below or tweet @murfiemusic with the hashtag #BargainHuntGiveaway, and include the name of the album you’d like to win. Next week, I’ll pick three random winners and gift them the album on Murfie.

Read on for my recent finds, and remember that I only paid $5 for all three of these albums!

First Find: Tom Waits – Bone Machine
Tom Waits has been one of my favorite artists since the day I purchased a copy of Real Gone on vinyl. It was the first of many vinyl purchases made on a whim, and I never regretted it. While Real Gone may have been my gateway album, Bone Machine has some absolute classics. “Earth Died Screaming”, “Dirt in the Ground” and “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” are the kind of songs you will find on just about every Tom Waits cover album, and Bone Machine was in general a taste of the sort of material he’d release for the next two decades.

This album even includes the quintessential manthem* “Goin’ Out West“.

Well I know karate, voodoo too
I’m gonna make myself available to you
I don’t need no make up
I got real scars
I got hair on my chest
I look good without a shirt

Second Find: Björk – Vespertine
Vespertine is an album I always forget about.  And for no good reason! Perhaps it’s because I really hopped on the Björk train full-bore with Volta in 2007. The rest of her catalog came to me in an attempt to find more of what I loved about Volta. Make no mistake, though – Vespertine is its own beautiful beast. “Hidden Place” is an incredibly subdued starting point for the album, and she somehow brings it down another notch immediately after with “Cocoon”. The glitchy beats spread throughout the album really compliment the ever present harp work and her typically ethereal vocals, and in general, Vespertine is all about the atmosphere.

My favorite track on the album is hands down “Sun in My Mouth”, which draws lyrics directly from the e.e. cummings poem “Wade.” Melodically, the song also reminds me of the more delicate moments in some of Sondheim‘s work.  It’s one of e.e. cummings’ more visually evocative pieces, and the brevity of Björk’s interpretation makes sure it doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Final Find: Charles Mingus – Mingus Ah Um
The year 1959 was a huge one for jazz to say the least. Time Out (specifically the song “Take Five”) made Brubeck a household name, while Miles Davis released the masterpiece that is Kind of Blue. We also got three albums by John Coltrane (including the unforgettable Giant Steps) and Ornette Coleman‘s The Shape of Jazz to Come.

While I love all of those albums, Mingus Ah Um will always have a special place reserved in my heart as one of the first jazz albums I really got to know inside and out. I became a fan of jazz in early high school, and Mingus Ah Um is full of tunes I’ve been listening since then. What I love most about the album is how down to earth it is. It sounds like Mingus and his crew are playing in the room with you. I love the realness of the group clapping and distant preaching in album opener “Better Git It in Your Soul”.

Mingus Ah Um is an album completely filled with these intimate moments, including tributes and homages to the likes of Lester Young, Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton. It even caused a bit of a stir in its own right when Columbia famously refused to let Mingus record the politically charged lyrics for Fables of Faubus (though the validity of this claim is still debated). If you come across it, I highly recommend the 50th anniversary 2-disc Legacy Edition, which includes three alternate takes, as well as the sister album Mingus Dynasty.


If any of these albums sound interesting to you, comment below or tweet @murfiemusic with the hashtag #BargainHuntGiveaway, and include the name of the album you’d like to win. Three random winners will be gifted these albums next week!

*manthem = man + anthem