WHITE GARDENIA at the Segal
On the anniversary of her 100th birthday, Billie Holiday is coming back to Montreal.
And again, the storied life of the internationally renowned hummingbird will unfold on stage, suffused with drama and gorged with emotion: pleasure, laughter, tragedy and tears, all told through her many insightful songs.
It’s White Gardenia…
The scene is the dilapidated Chez Maurice nightclub in 1957, in downtown Montreal. Billie Holiday is taking to the stage for a midnight performance, where she will take the audience on a long, gut-wrenching journey of her life – her struggles with drugs, alcohol, and bittersweet love/ abusive relationships… including a marriage to an alleged Mafia enforcer and spousal abuser. In the end her foibles coalesced to create and perpetuate the legend.
Award-winning Montreal songstress and Jazz icon, Ranee Lee’s unforgettable performances as White Gardenia… will again conjure the spirit of Billie Holiday through her memorable songs, thrilling audiences of all ages over the years with every performance she has done over the years, leaving an indelible mark on every audience in the process.
Billie Holiday began her career with her first recording Riffin the Scotch, which sold 5,000 copies. Then in the mid-1930s, she began releasing music under her own name, Billie Holiday & Her Orchestra.
But hers was a life of challenges, beginning in the 1950s.
She first toured Europe in January 1954, with stops in Stockholm, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Paris and Switzerland.
Back in New York, in November 1956, she performed two concerts to sold-out audiences at Carnegie Hall, a major accomplishment for a Black artist at the time, given the social demarcation (the racial segregation of American society) of the day.
Live recordings of the second Carnegie Hall concert were released in the UK in late 1961 on The Essential Billie Holiday. It included some of her original songs such as I Love My Man, Don’t Explain, Lady Sings the Blues among others…
Among Holiday’s many recognizable and most popular recordings are her seminal songs “Strange Fruit” (her biggest selling song, recorded in 1939), and God Bless the Child (it sold over a million copies, and ranked number 3 on Billboard’s year-end top songs of 1941. Both are commentaries on the trying socio-historic issues of the day. She also recorded Summertime (R&B singer Billy Stewart also recorded a popular version in 1966) one of the ultimate summer songs, which conjures fleeting moments of escapism… especially in her tormented life.
Holiday also appeared on the ABC TV reality series The Comeback Story to discuss attempts to overcome her misfortunes, and made recurring appearances on CBS’s The Sound of Jazz program.
Along the way, Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, was published, an apt accompaniment to her 1956 LP of the same name, Lady Sings the Blues.
But throughout this period, he demons were tormenting and gradually taking a toll on her physical being, especially her voice. Nevertheless, she was able to continue performing and recording.
On a return visit to Europe in 1959, Holiday made one of her final television appearances for Granada’s Chelsea at Nine in London. That year, she made her final studio recordings.
In the midst of her personal travails, Billie Holiday was able to produce a body of work—on wax, stage, TV and the big screen. All of which comprise a legacy that continues to inspire generations of performers around the world (reprising her life on stage and on the big screen), minus the pernicious elements of her eventual demise.
Said Frank Sinatra in a 1958 interview with Ebony magazine after seeing one of her performances and its impact on him as a young man: “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. Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years…”
Back in New York, her past was taking its toll; the once strikingly beautiful Billie Holiday had become a grotesque caricature of herself. On July 15, 1959, she was taken to Metropolitan Hospital suffering with liver and heart disease. Two days later, she died from pulmonary edema and heart failure caused by cirrhosis of the liver.
She was 44.
See Ranee Lee reprise the bittersweet career and storied life of Billy Holiday in White Gardenia: The Billie Holiday Musical, at the Segal Center, beginning March 24–29. Tickets are limited.