To grasp fully what it means for certain popular musicians to remain popular decades after their birth, you have to calculate the conversion from normal human time to pop-star time. Life expectancy in the United States today is 78.88 years. A pop singer, however, can reasonably hope to survive as a figure of some prominence in the music marketplace for about a year and a half, the typical duration of the life cycle from rising unknown to new face to celebrity to fading star to judge on America’s Got Talent. A singer can expect to enjoy stardom for approximately 1.9 percent of the lifetime of a regular person; and while human life expectancy grows each year, the ever-accelerating pace of hype and ever-diminishing span of audience attention conspire to continue reducing the half-life of famousness.
America’s ongoing fascination with two singers born 100 years ago, Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra, is extraordinary and speaks to the unique power of their images as artists, their myths, and—above all, I think—their music. After all, Holiday and Sinatra were hardly the only singers born in 1915. The blues great Muddy Waters, born McKinley Morganfield, may have had the same birth year, though the records for poor African-American families in and around his probable birthplace in Issaquena County, Mississippi, are scandalously incomplete. (Waters himself, at various times, gave 1913 and 1915 as the year of his birth.) Wynonie Harris, the proto-rock R&B howler, was born in 1915, and so were Alice Faye, Ginny Simms, Billy Daniels, “Honeyboy” Edwards, Dorothy Dell, Midge Williams, and a great many more.
Alice Faye? Yes—well, she was one of the top box-office attractions in the country in 1939, when Billie Holiday was just beginning to achieve mainstream success. Ginny Simms? Oh, sure—she made 11 movies before Sinatra appeared in his breakthrough film, From Here to Eternity, in 1953. Billy Daniels, in 1952, was among the first African-American entertainers to have his own national television show, produced in what would later become the Ed Sullivan Theater.
Unlike most of the other singers who arrived in the same time frame, as well as countless pop vocalists and musicians who came and went over the nine decades to follow, Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra are still solidly grounded in the public consciousness—if anything, too solidly. Our collective conceptions of them both, reinforced by years of replays of a handful of their best-known recordings and regurgitation of the same stories about their robust private lives in books and magazine articles, have served to freeze Holiday and Sinatra in our minds as “icons,” symbols of use for worship or ridicule, but ill suited to serious consideration: Holiday, the drug-ravaged ex-prostitute who croaked her songs in pain; Sinatra, the mobbed-up, Jack-chugging swinger who chewed up life and spit it out. The fact that they were musicians—and great ones, committed to producing creative work that endures as a consequence of their mastery and originality—seems almost incidental now.
In the months leading up to 2015 and over the course of this year, the machinery of centennial celebration has brought more attention to Holiday and Sinatra than they have had since their deaths—Holiday, at 44 in 1959, of complications from liver disease; Sinatra, at 82 in 1998, of a heart attack. (The movie version of the Holiday myth, Lady Sings the Blues, produced by Jay Weston, James White, and Motown founder Berry Gordy in 1972, celebrated its star, Diana Ross, more than its ostensible subject.) In 2014, Audra McDonald appeared to critical praise as Holiday in the one-woman theater piece with music Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. This year, the jazz singers Cassandra Wilson and José James have released a pair of tributes to Holiday on CD: Wilson’s Coming Forth by Day, an ambitious reconsideration of Holiday material with musicians including T-Bone Burnett and members of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Bad Seeds; and James’s Yesterday I Had the Blues, a more conventional album of respectful, meaty jazz performances, featuring pianist Jason Moran. The biographer and critic John Szwed, author of a superb book about another influential child of 1915, the folklorist Alan Lomax, has published a sober rumination on Holiday’s importance, Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth. And the two labels with the largest holdings of Holiday recordings, Columbia II and Verve, have both put together centennial-edition collections of her tracks, too, of course.