If ever there was a chart statistic to prove that artistic influence is not always matched by commercial achievement, it lies in the fact that for all of Billie Holiday’s unquestioned preeminence as a unique vocal talent, her UK chart debut came 26 years after her death.
On November 16, 1985, the compilation The Legend of Billie Holiday entered the British chart. The 16-track release, on MCA Records, was TV-advertised, and introduced many younger music lovers to an extraordinarily expressive and distinctive voice, through many of her best-known songs. Several of her signature numbers, indeed, had become associated with other, pop-oriented artists in her stead.
Notable among those was “That Ole Devil Called Love,” recorded by Holiday in November 1944, which gave English vocalist Alison Moyet a No.2 UK hit in March 1985. That success helped stoke the interest in Holiday that led to the new compilation.
Her 1941 standard “God Bless The Child,” which she co-wrote with Arthur Herzog Jr, went on to be covered by at least 350 artists, including Aretha Franklin, the Righteous Brothers and Ella Fitzgerald. At the time of the compilation’s release, it had recently been recorded by Crystal Gayle.
The Legend of Billie Holiday, which also featured such gems as “Good Morning Heartache,” “My Man,” “Don’t Explain,” and “Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be),” entered the UK chart at a modest No.94. Three weeks later, it was at its No.60 peak, but the retrospective amassed ten weeks on the British chart and achieved both silver and gold certification.
Neither did the singer make the American album chart during her lifetime, even with her 1958 landmark Lady In Satin, which later went into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Her US debut came around Christmas 1972 when The Billie Holiday Story started a climb to No.85, prompted by Diana Ross’ portrayal of Lady Day in Lady Sings The Blues. That was followed by two further compilations in 1973, Strange Fruit and The Original Recordings.
In 1997, another compilation, Lady Day – The Very Best Of Billie Holiday made modest sales inroads in the UK. But then, as now, we knew that her immense influence couldn’t be limited by mere chart parameters.