Lady Day spent her final hours in a rundown Harlem Hospital. Billie was 44 years old, she was in need of painkillers. The New York police had looted her room and found heroin in her pocketbook. The doctor didn’t bother much, the mindset being, ‘why treat this lady if she’s still flying?’ Three cops were stationed outside her door and a beauty therapist was inside doing her hair and nails. Billie was smoking cigarette after cigarette, she told Frank to watch out for the therapist, who would steal the gold from her teeth while she was still chewing her gum
By then, Billie was skin and bone, wrecked by narcotics, booze had ruined her intestines and her liver shot to pieces. She was glad when Frank turned up, telling her how much he loved the album, ‘Lady In Satin’. He tried to get her interested in going back to work. He said he owed his career to her, ‘You taught me everything when I was beginning with Harry James’.
Billie wasn’t having it. She laughed, and whispered in Frank Sinatra’s ear, ‘cut the crap baby, get me some dope’. She was flat-out from withdrawal. Later on that day, Billie Holiday died alone in bed. Sinatra spent a long time holed up, playing her records over, sobbing himself to sleep.
See, Sinatra was this complex guy, merciless, delicate, streetwise, and stacked with heart. Billie was his golden calf, she versed him in the art of phrasing, of tone, of tempo, simply put, she taught him how to sing.
Where Frank was the proverbial ‘cat with nine lives’, Billie was destined for a shorter run at the Opera. She was born to sing out of that brilliant, ‘honey coloured throat’, (Sinatra’s words) bending those beautiful notes in the rarefied Jazz atmosphere of Harlem. She was Jazz’s secret weapon, the zen priestess of soul, impeccable timing, phrasing, and rhythm.
A human instrument created in another world, another time, and therein lies the conundrum, conceived with this internal light, grasping for a break in life, Billie’s continued agony created that incredible blues soul, that ‘mixed up thing’ the apparatus of invention, the Rosetta Stone of Jazz idiom, the wonder that became Lady Day.
Sinatra was a skinny, cocky kid when he became Billie’s lover. He was in awe of his muse ’till long after she died. Their souls matched, they imparted the same harsh virtuoso, the same gritty musical genius. No way would Billie claim credit for ‘educating’ Sinatra, she rejected the idea, saying all she ever did was help him ‘bend a note’.
Still, Sinatra owed much of his art to Lady Day. He knew it, they both did, but Billie shucked it off, with a smile.