Talent and Tragedy: From Billie Holiday to Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston’s tragic and unexpected death on February 11, 2012 marks another tragic end to a talented life that was cut short too soon. Houston was 48 at the time of the death. It is too early to know the cause of Houston’s death but what is known is that she suffered from a variety of addiction problems, including alcohol and prescription drugs. Houston was a high profile celebrity who sold millions of records and her death is receiving around the clock coverage by news networks such as CNN. In this regard, the celebrity nature of Houston’s death evokes comparisons with other pop celebrities such as Michael Jackson and Elvis.

The tragedy of Houston’s death will is bound to promote further debate and discussion about the dangers of prescription drugs, alcohol addiction, and the doctors and medical institutions that treat celebrities and prescribe drugs for them. Whatever personal problems Houston suffered from, she unfortunately joins a long lost of musicians and artists whose lives were troubled and shortened.

Etta James passed away a couple of weeks ago on January 20, 2012 five days before her 74th birthday. Although she lived to be 74, James’s life was full of trouble and turmoil. James was a powerhouse female vocalist who blended rhythm and blues with soul and jazz. I couldn’t help but think of Billie Holiday when I first heard the news about James’s death. Holiday and James were very kindred spirits despite the fact they were from different generations. Billie Holiday was born in 1915 in Baltimore and made her first recordings in the 1930s. She was steeped in the jazz of the big band era but her musical sensibilities were heavily inundated with the blues as well. James was born in Los Angeles 1938 and made her first recordings in the 1950s. She is one of the central links between rhythm and blues, soul, and rock and roll. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. In an article in Rolling Stone, James is quoted as saying: “They got this shit backwards. It should be the R&B Hall of Fame, where blacks decide which white rockers deserve to get in.”

Holiday and James both had very troubled childhoods; troubled mothers, absent fathers, prostitution, alcohol and drug abuse. Holiday moved to New York City at the age of 12 with her mother. James moves to San Francisco to be with her mother when she was 12. Holiday died at the age of 44 from complications associated with cirrhosis of the liver. Despite the trouble and turmoil, or perhaps due in part to the trouble and turmoil, James and Holiday produced a significant and beautiful body of work. I couldn’t help thinking of the young British singer Amy Winehouse, also troubled by addictions and personal problems, who passed away on July 23, 2011 before her promising career had a chance to blossom.

Holiday, James, and Winehouse all had a unique and intimate vocal style. Although their voices are quite different, Holiday was subtle and subdued while James was often all power and rough. Winehouse struck me as a contemporary version of Holiday when I first heard her a couple of years ago but her voice certainly had its own unique quality as well. However, the vocal styling of three singers resonate with a profound sense of emotional intensity so much so that the turmoil and trouble of their personal lives always seems present just below the surface. The obvious question is to ask is to what degree their personal troubles informed and influenced their art. The flip side of the question is would they have been the artists they were without the problems and troubles they endured? The motif of the suffering artist has become embedded in popular culture as has the cliché that you have to pay the dues of you want to sing the blues.

Holiday, James, and Winehouse certainly don’t exhaust the category of the suffering artist nor, unfortunately, do they seem to be the exception to the rule. Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, three contemporary giants of jazz, suffered from addiction and mental health problems. Charlie Parker serves as a case in point in regards to the questions about the suffering artists. Parker’s ‘s genius as saxophonist and musician caused many lesser talented musicians to follow him down the road to heroin addiction in pursuit of Parker’s musical magic. Parker died at the age of 34 after years of drug and alcohol abuse. Parker became a heroin addict at the age of 17. He was never able to kick the habit. He suffered a nervous breakdown while on tour in California. He alienated friend, colleagues, and nightclub owners through his erratic and unpredictable behavior. However, despite his chaotic and short life Parker’s musical legacy will undoubtedly endure.

It is impossible to determine if Charlie Parker of Billie Holiday, or any of the other artists mentioned in this article, would have been the artists they were without the personal troubles and turmoil. Eric Clapton’s story is an interesting case in point. He recently published his autobiography in which he documents his years of struggle with alcoholism and heroin addiction. Clapton saw many of his musical friends and collaborators succumb to addiction problems. Clapton comments that music, the blues in particular, were an essential coping mechanism for dealing with a troubled childhood as were the drugs and alcohol. For a young rock musician in the 1960s, as for a jazz musician in the 1940s and ’50s, drugs were plentiful and easily accessible. They came with the territory. There was the assumption that altered states of consciousness aided the creative process and journey. Clapton regards this early view misguided and considers himself as one of the fortunate ones who survived.


Eric Clapton, Clapton: The Autobiography

David Ritz, “Etta James: 1938-2012,” Rolling Stone

Ross Russell, Bird Lives!: The High Life And Hard Times Of Charlie (yardbird) Parker

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