May 9, 2011

Billie and the Blessed Child

Billie Holiday recorded what was almost her last hit song, “God Bless the Child,” on this date in 1941, with the Eddie Heywood Orchestra featuring Roy Eldridge on trumpet. Shortly before this session, she had co-written this tune with Arthur Herzog, Jr., a songwriter with whom she sometimes collaborated. In her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday claims that the song stemmed from an incident in her childhood when she asked for money from her mother and was refused.

Unfortunately, Holiday was not the most reliable of narrators. A different account appears in Donald Clark’s biography, Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon. Herzog was trying to come up with a hit record at the time, which was during the ill-fated ASCAP strike, in which the American Society of Composers tried to boost their radio royalty rate and broadcasters balked. A rival organization was formed, called Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI), and their songs were the only thing on the air at the time. Herzog was not a member of ASCAP and saw an opportunity.

He approached Holiday and asked her for an “old-fashioned Southern expression” to turn into a song. Billie could come up with nothing in response to this rather odd request. Their conversation turned to Billie’s mother, who was apparently attempting to open a club of some sort at the time and was pestering her daughter for funds. In exasperation, Billie told Herzog, “God bless the child!” He asked her to explain the remark. “That’s what we used to say,” Holiday explained, “your mother’s got money, your father’s got money, your sister’s got money, your cousin’s got money, but if you haven’t got it yourself, God bless the child that’s got his own.” Herzog claimed that it took him only twenty minutes to write the song.

Billie Holiday’s version of “God Bless the Child” was honored with the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1976 - certainly an indication that all great popular songs are not necessarily about love.

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