– Born: April 7, 1915
– Died: July 17, 1959
– Essential listening: “Strange Fruit” (1939)
– Who she inspired: Paula West, Joey Arias, Joni Mitchell
A young Billie Holiday listened to 1920s Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong records on a Victrola at the brothel where she scrubbed floors. But instead of mimicking their vocals, Holiday had a different approach: a hushed, almost reluctant voice cloaked in suspense that was suited perfectly for new microphone technology in the 1930s that could amplify her sound. She was catapulted into the spotlight with her 1939 recording of “Strange Fruit,” a protest song about the lynchings of African Americans.
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