I don't want to give too much of this away--I want you to buy my Sam Cooke 33 1/3 book that comes out in May and make it a bestseller!--but this is another excerpt as a tease, from a section about Cooke and Billie Holiday.
Cooke’s singles in 1960 prior to “Chain Gang” had a symphonic tinge. “Summertime,” “Teenage Sonata,” ‘T’aint Nobody’s Bizness,” the final song lifted from Cooke’s 1959 album in commemoration of Billie Holiday, Tribute to the Lady. Lady Day had died that year, aged only forty-four. Holiday and Cooke will be responsible for the two songs numbering as the most important that this country has produced. She didn’t write hers, in “Strange Fruit,” originally recorded in 1939, but she inhabited it to a degree that it was entirely her own. Or I’ve always been inclined to think of it that way.
Normally throughout her career, she’d introduce the number in concert by saying that it had been specifically written for her. She waits six years, though, to give it a first in-person airing, which occurs in 1945, at Los Angeles’ Philharmonic Hall in 1945. This recording is released in 1954, and Cooke knew it, because he made certain to know all of Holiday’s releases.
They are closely knit, Billie and Sam. Neither sings as anyone else does, then or now, and both encapsulate and transcend Black experience. “Strange Fruit” looks to the past, probes a warped pastoral of Black bodies hanging in poplar trees—the strange crop of the title, the fetid spoils of lynching. It goes back to go forward.
Holiday had a hard life. She’s used, abused, beaten, and, of course, she is discriminated against. Many Blacks were. She knew oppression, which is a blight that that could and can be open to all. Holiday wants to lift up her Black brothers and sisters, but she’d never leave out the white teenage girl who also took solace in this music—that same kid who maybe also listened to “You Send Me” in 1957.
She wishes to acknowledge—insists upon acknowledging, calling out, rendering plain—what a people had been through, help a race move forward, overcome, but she was also an inclusionary artist. You need not share the Black experience to align with Holiday’s music, to feel close to this art, as if it couldn’t champion you as well—maybe even champion you to you. There is an indefatigable resolution of self-belief in Holiday’s artistry. The fact that you didn’t have to be Black to connect with her songs, makes it all the more likely that you would connect deeply with them if you were, because you understood the most crucial requirement of human decency: that others be allowed to grow as fully and richly as you wish to be allowed to grow. Holiday empowers in different ways. Like Cooke will learn to do, she moves from the personal to the universal. The white girl would have focused on the former. The Black people who lived a version of what Holiday had lived, instead focused equally on both. Their own experiences, and the experiences of their people as a whole.
But no one called out racial injustice as Holiday did on “Strange Fruit.” This is new. “Strange Fruit” is one reason why the casket was left open at the funeral of the murdered Emmett Till in Sam Cooke’s Chicago in summer 1955, with 50,000 people—many of whom loved Holiday and would embrace Cooke—turning up to view the body, which was also part of that devilish crop of fields that were rarely fallow. Recently I heard “Strange Fruit” playing at a Starbucks, no one even stirred from their phones and lattes, completely failing to take note of this sound that can render you incapable of standing for a while. You won’t be shaking your hips, to put it in the Harlem Square Club terms of “Feel It (Don’t Fight It).” But you will sway as you listen, like those Black bodies dangling from the trees.
Cooke does not cover “Strange Fruit” on Tribute to the Lady. I think the reason is simple—he understood the scope of the song, and preferred to leave it be, leave it just as Billie’s, until he could create a song of his own with comparable scope. He wasn’t there yet. In the meanwhile, he could cut versions of “Tenderly” and “God Bless the Child” and lay plane his spiritual symbiosis with this star-crossed jazz-soul paragon.
The 1945 version of “Strange Fruit”—what will be a seminal song for Sam Cooke, which will help take him to “Chain Gang,” and then on to Overtown in January 1963, and finally to his own most lasting composition, the result of all of this, a number at the level of, and even beyond, Holiday’s timeless creation—is almost too powerful to listen to. You can hear Holiday cough several times as she prepares to join in body and soul with this hellish diorama, where she will serve as narrator—the narrator who must not flinch, even as we do, because how can we not, if we are human?
Arrangements of the song would later tend to get a bit busy. They’re not spartan. But this is. It’s Holiday and only a piano. And the crowd. They’re part of this performance just as the Overtown crowd turns Cooke’s octet into a nonet (we’ll count the ticket-buyers in Miami as one group member). The pacing is in line with Cooke’s own “Lost and Lookin’.” You feel like you could lay the two tracks on top of each other and there’d be a rough synchronicity.
She approaches the end of the song, and begins to sing the final word, which is “crop,” and her voice just breaks. It gives out. It gives out, and then she catches herself, and it rises higher than it otherwise would have without that giving out. As we have seen, Sam Cooke used laughter as a form of singing. Laughter is not that far from crying. We might cry until we laugh. We might laugh until we cry. He’s simply modulating the emotional context. Laughing to keep from crying, to paraphrase Smokey Robinson. Holiday, Cooke, linked.
The crowd is spent, and the crowd turns rapturous, in LA in 1945, as Billie Holiday finishes the first ever live performance of “Strange Fruit.” As their applause dwindles, the applause in Overtown rises once more, in this shifting sea of soul—and soul—time. Sam Cooke is blasting this bad boy of a gig, of a live album, into another gear, just as Billie Holiday had geared herself up to give her audience a performance of a song that will stand apart from all others in rock and roll, soul, jazz, blues, until Cooke is ready to reach his highest level.
We are getting there.