The Flip Side to BILLIE'S BLUES by Hershell Norwood — Billie Holiday , Billie's Blues , Hershell Norwood — AAPEX

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Flip Side to BILLIE'S BLUES by Hershell Norwood

The Flip Side

In 1939, Billie Holiday cut a record.

It was a record whose significance we may only, just now, be able to put into proper historical perspective. It heralded the beginning of revolution on more than one front.

On one side was STRANGE FRUIT written by a Jewish activist named Abel Meeropol, who was "better known as" Lewis Allen. STRANGE FRUIT would quickly become Holiday's signature song, the song with which she closed many of her shows (when she was allowed to sing it). The song after which there was never an encore. The song which was recognized as the Best Song of the Century by Time Magazine in 1999.

On the flip side was FINE AND MELLOW, written by Billie Holiday.

STRANGE FRUIT made Billie Holiday famous at the time. If she walked into a room today and sang the song I'm sure she would become as much a sensation in our time as she was in her own, because there is no other song like STRANGE FRUIT and, I'm sure, no musical experience that would equal her performance of this particular song.

Enter Barney Josephson, a Jewish shoe salesman from Trenton, New Jersey and a great champion of Jazz and African American musicians. In 1938, Josephson opened the first integrated night club in the United States - CAFE SOCIETY: THE WRONG PLACE FOR THE RIGHT PEOPLE, where Billie Holiday began singing STRANGE FRUIT.

The world wanted Billie to record STRANGE FRUIT, but Columbia, who held her contract, was afraid of the song and refused to record it. John Hammond, who was her agent at Columbia, didn't think the song was for her, but he grew to see things differently, though he always felt that in some ways STRANGE FRUIT did damage to Holiday's career.

Enter Milton Gabler, a Harlem born Jewish fellow with a great love of jazz, who founded his own recording company on 42nd St - Commodore Records. Gabler became the champion of the song and of Holiday when he offered to record STRANGE FRUIT in 1939. Columbia agreed to release Holiday from her contract obligations so that the recording could be made.

This was the old days. It was a 78 speed vynal disk with just one cut on each side. So they needed something for the flip side.

Billie may be best known as a singer, but she's just as important as a songwriter, and Billie had a song and that song was FINE AND MELLOW.

FINE AND MELLOW was the complete antithesis of STRANGE FRUIT - one of those kind of scary co-dependant torch songs of the era that advocate that it is better to date a cad than to not date at all - but that's really fun to sing and play - and that audiences love. So FINE AND MELLOW went on the flip side of STRANGE FRUIT.

At first it didn't matter. For those of us who grew up with 45s, I'm sure you remember that you bought a song for the hit cut but that didn't mean you ever played the flip side - until one day, for whatever reason, you did listen to the unheard cut and asked your self - "WHY did I never listen to THAT song?"

Meanwhile, back at the recording studio, Milt Gabler did something extraordinary: He copyrighted FINE AND MELLOW. And he copywrighted it in Billie Holiday's name. If standard business practices had been followed, as the producer, he would normally have copywritten the song under his own name or the Commodore label. But Gabler was one of a handful of whose ethics and mission seem to have been rooted in the true spirit of the Constitution, and he, Josephson and Meeropol are outstanding examples of the Jewish contribution to American jazz and the road to integration and the unlearning of racism in our country.

Which makes history - because in the early phases of the recording industry, songwriters sold the songs (i.e. ownership/copyright) to the recording companies. As a general business practice, it would not have occurred to a songwriter to snag a copyright. So, by ipso or facto, Billie Holiday scored a hit with FINE AND MELLOW that represents a very avant garde moment in the history of the BUSINESS of songwriting. And this is how it happened:

Somewhere someone discovered FINE AND MELLOW in a way that somehow did not reflect the association with Billie Holiday and a recording was made by Decca featuring Alberta Hunter.

Eventually, of course, Holiday got wind of this and she stepped forward with her copyright. Billie got money for the Alberta Hunter recording.

But it wasn't just Billie Holiday who stepped forward - it was the people around her - Barney Josephson, Milton Gabler, John Hammond and countless others - her extended "professional entourage" if you will - establishing Holiday as a force whose talent, magnetism and contribution to our history extend far beyond the nightclub stage and the recording studio.

And the moral is - Listen to the flip side.

BILLIE'S BLUES - a new play about Billie Holiday, Strange Fruit and Fine & Mellow by Hershell Norwood. For a review copy of the script, contact:

Jaz Dorsey
The African American Playwrights Exchange
Nashville, Tennessee

For those who haven't heard Strange Fruit, here it is:

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