World War II

The soldier and the jazz singer

 ... Billie Holiday - an unforgettable memory

By Irving Smolens

For some time the editors of the Melrose Mirror have advocated that we write stories about our hobbies. Until now I have not complied; for two reasons. I had a number of stories that I wanted to write about my experiences as a member of the Fourth Infantry Division and the Fourth Infantry Division Association and because I did not think of my love of Jazz music as a hobby. I just felt that those who appreciate and support any art form are not practicing a hobby. I have recently modified my thinking to concede that art appreciation could fall within the definition of "hobby."

I was introduced to Jazz while in high school by a close friend. My interest in and love of that music was enhanced by columns written by the late George Frazier in the old Boston Herald. I had been somewhat familiar with Billie Holiday as a Jazz singer. However, I never paid that much attention to her because I was more interested in listening to the great instrumentalists of that era, most of whom were under-appreciated because of their race (except by their white counterparts).

A column in which Frazier stated unequivocally that Billie Holiday was his favorite female vocalist caught my attention. I decided to start buying some of her records so that I could listen and pay attention to her vocalizing. I had to buy the recordings because her performances were seldom if ever available on local radio stations.

In those days there was no FM radio and there were no long-playing records. Billie Holiday's recording of "Strange Fruit" was banned on radio and Columbia Records, to whom she was under contract, would not record it. She had to go to Commodore Records, an independent, to make that recording. It was considered too inflammatory because it graphically and poetically described the lynching of members of her race by hate-filled southern whites. That song has since been recorded by several other singers. Josh White, and more recently, by Abby Lincoln and Cassandra Wilson. Because these singers are of African-American descent, they are not household names and consequently their recordings are not widely distributed and played. I venture to say that most people do not know of that song and have never heard it sung.

But I digress; I started out to tell a story. Once I started listening to her attentively, Billie's singing hit me like a ton of bricks. The emotional impact caused me to feel goose bumps on the back of my neck. Fast forward now to my role as a young American combat soldier. I had recently achieved the ripe old age of 20 years. After repulsing the German counterattack in Luxembourg in the battle that became known as the Battle of the Bulge, we were engaged in an operation to clear German forces from the west bank of the Rhine River preparatory to launching a crossing that would carry us into the heart of Germany and on to final victory.

We were temporarily stopped in our advance by a German road block. We had pulled up on the road and while waiting for our infantry to clear that temporary impediment, we dismounted our trucks. We remembered that on our first excursion into Germany in early September 1944 we had "liberated" a table radio from a German house. There were no battery-operated portable radios in those days and, being out in the open, we had no power source to operate the radio. We decided to consult the best radio man in our gun battery, Sergeant Bartlett, who in characteristic army fashion, was our chief cook. He hooked together a spare truck battery and a large radio battery and attached that power source to the radio so that it could be played.

We were in close proximity to Radio Luxembourg, the most powerful transmitter in Western Europe. The station had been taken over by the Armed Forces Radio Network and evidently the program director was a jazz lover because the first song I heard was Billie Holiday singing, "I'll be Seeing You." For those who are familiar with the plaintive words and melody of that song, try to imagine its impact on this young 20 year old who had never, prior to his US Army service, been more than five or 10 miles away from his home. I have not forgotten and will never forget how that experience hit me.

Many years later I had a chance to meet Eddie Heywood, Billie's music director when she had recorded that song. He told me that when he first brought that song to Billie, she refused to sing it saying that she did not think it was her kind of song. Mr. Heywood finally convinced her and it became Billie's biggest hit record. My response to him was that it was her type of song and as far as I am concerned it will always be her song.

Billie has been gone from us since 1958 but her music lives on.

Author's note: The "Commodore Classics" CD is available from Billie Holiday recorded "Strange Fruit" and "I'll be Seeing You" a number of times during her short, tragic career. In my opinion the original recordings for Commodore Records are the best versions and people who have purchased the LP and reviewed it seem to agree with me.

December 7, 2001

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