Saturday, February 11, 2012

Lady Sings the Blues

JC Penny has a commercial running on television now that has caught the attention of millions, and generated over 40,000 hits on YouTube. For many of the younger viewers seeing the commercial for the first time, the reaction is, “Wow! Who’s that singing?” For the older folks watching, the answer is easy: It’s the legendary Billie Holiday who died in 1959, but not before creating a sound that had profound influence on singers and musicians too many to count. The song is an Irving Berlin tune titled, “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” Should be no surprise if this new JC Penny commercial results in the rise of Billie Holiday album sales and iTunes downloads. Twenty-five years after the death of English musician Nick Drake, a Volkswagen commercial featuring one of his songs catapulted sales of his three albums. Holiday recorded something like forty-three albums and almost as many singles.

Billie Holiday grew up in Baltimore in the 1920s, where as a young teenager, she sang along with records by Bessie Smith in after-hours jazz clubs. She followed her mother to New York and there made her debut in small Harlem nightclubs. Holiday never had any musical training and never even learned to read music, but easily fit into what was surely the most happening jazz scene in the country moving from one club to another, working for tips. She sometimes sang with the accompaniment of a house piano player while other times working with several performers. Spotted by record producer John Hammond, Holiday cut her first record at the age of 18 as part of a studio group led by Benny Goodman, at the time just on the verge of fame.

Holiday began working with Lester Young in 1936, who tagged her with the nickname “Lady Day.” Joining Count Basie in 1937 and then Artie Shaw in 1938, she became one of the very first black women to work with a white orchestra—an impressive accomplishment for that time. She recorded about 100 new recordings on the Verve label from 1952 to 1959. During this period, she also toured Europe, and made her final studio recordings for the MGM label in March of 1959.

Despite the lack of technical training, Holiday’s unique diction, distinctive phrasing and dramatic intensity made her the outstanding jazz singer of her day. White gardenias, worn in her hair, became her trademark. She wrote in her autobiography, “Singing songs like the “The Man I Love” or “Porgy” is no more work than sitting down and eating Chinese roast duck, and I love roast duck. I’ve lived songs like that.”

Billie Holiday died at the age of 44 from pulmonary edema and heart failure caused by cirrhosis of the liver. A year before her death Frank Sinatra was quoted in Ebony magazine as saying: “With few exceptions, every major pop singer in the US during her generation has been touched in some way by Billie Holiday’s genius. It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me. Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years.”

Unfortunately, commercial minutes being so costly the JC Penny commercial only affords us the first five lines of “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” The song was originally written by Irving Berlin in 1937 for the movie On the Avenue and performed by Dick Powell and Alice Fay. Here are the lyrics…

The snow is snowing, the wind is blowing

But I can weather the storm

What do I care how much it may storm?

I've got my love to keep me warm

I can't remember a worse December

Just watch those icicles form

What do I care if icicles form?

I've got my love to keep me warm

Off with my overcoat

Off with my glove

I need no overcoat

I'm burning with love

My heart's on fire, the flame grows higher

So I will weather the storm

What do I care how much it may storm?

I've got my love to keep me warm

YouTube is full of other Billie Holiday clips of this song, but for a good comparison listen to an Alice fay version of the song.


  1. Loved it and playing the music took me back so many years. Thanks for the history and the trip down memory lane.

  2. Oh, yes, one of the greatest. Her ability with phrasing and emphasis (like Sinatra's) may not ever be surpassed. Put on one of her records and the mood she creates immediately transports you to any place you want to go. High musical art and it was as easy for her as eating roasted duck.


About Me

My photo
Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America