The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum

Women Who Rock spotlight: Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday

Wednesday, July 6: 3:38 p.m.
Billie Holiday's fur stole in the Museum's Women Who Rock exhibit

I saw the film Lady Sings the Blues, starring Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Diana Ross, when I was about 11 years old.  One of the images in the movie that still resonates with me is one in which the around 11-year-old Billie Holiday, circa 1926, is working as a cleaning and errand girl for a Baltimore “house of ill-repute.” When she is supposed to be scrubbing the front stoop, she sneaks away and spends most of her time leaning over the Victrola in the brothel parlor, cranking up Bessie Smith’s latest hit, “’Taint Nobody’s Biz-ness if I Do.” She plays the record over and over, singing along, studying every note and syllable. So, that film was not only my introduction to Billie Holiday, it was also my introduction to Bessie Smith, and an important lesson in how artists pass the cultural torch. Watching Diana Ross’ portrayal of Billie Holiday learning from Bessie Smith, I recognized the same way that I studied every Supremes’ 45 on my old Sears Silvertone. I can imagine Lady GaGa at 11 years old, listening to Madonna’s “Express Yourself” on her Walkman in exactly the same way. Seeing Lady Sings the Blues may well have been my introduction to being a music curator! Anyway, that’s probably the reason my favorite pieces in the Women Who Rock exhibit are the Billie Holiday fox fur stole and the photo of her wearing it, and the trombone part of the arrangement for her own recording of “’Taint Nobody’s Biz-ness.” To see that fur stole, a tangible example of how far Billie had traveled from scrubbing those white steps in Baltimore, and that beautiful photograph of her proudly modeling her prize, looking gorgeous and vibrant on a New York City corner, right next to the trombone arrangement of the song she learned from Bessie – that, to me, is the essence of the story we’re telling with Women Who Rock.

Meet the Curator: From 11 a.m. to Noon on Friday, July 8 and 1 – 2 p.m. on Saturday, July 9, hear more behind-the-scenes story of the Women Who Rock exhibit with Meredith Rutledge during our Women Who Rock Celebration Weekend. Click here for details.

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