This week marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of legendary songstress Billie Holiday, who died in 1959 at the age of 44. A few years before her death, Holiday recorded an impromptu cover of the Jewish classic My Yiddishe Mama, which was composed by Jack Yellen and Lew Pollack and popularized by vaudeville star Sophie Tucker in 1925.
By the late 1930s, Billie Holiday had toured with Count Basie and Artie Shaw, scored a string of radio and retail hits with Teddy Wilson, and became an established artist in the recording industry. Her songs What A Little Moonlight Can Do and Easy Living were being imitated by singers across America and were quickly becoming jazz standards.[
As Elissa Goldstein wrote in Tablet Magazine,
The song has been covered many times, by everyone from the Barry Sisters to Neil Sedaka to—improbably—Tom Jones, who apparently learned it from his father, a Welsh coal miner. (Also noteworthy: this rendition by Ray Charles on the set of The Nanny.)
Holiday’s version is something else entirely: with a simple piano accompaniment, it’s nostalgic but not kitschy, full of sentiment without being sentimental, evoking both strength and vulnerability.
According to the liner notes of the Idelsohn Society’s 2011 compilation “Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations,” the song was recorded at the New York City home of clarinetist Tony Scott, in an effort to coax his baby into ‘talking’ into the microphone.
Another version of the story, by musician Jack Gottlieb, has it that the child was the son of William Dufty, who co-authored Holiday’s autobiography, “Lady Sings the Blues.” In any event, Holiday’s crooning is successful—how could it fail?—and the child can be heard cooing toward the end of the recording. It’s a delightful, candid moment.
(A SPECIAL NOTE FOR NEW EMAIL SUBSCRIBERS: THE VIDEO IS NOT VIEWABLE DIRECTLY FROM THE EMAIL THAT YOU GET EACH DAY. YOU MUST CLICK ON THE TITLE AT THE TOP OF THE EMAIL TO REACH THE JEWISH HUMOR CENTRAL WEBSITE, FROM WHICH YOU CLICK ON THE PLAY BUTTON IN THE VIDEO IMAGE TO START THE VIDEO.)