From Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays

Of all the great people who were recording for my uncle and being produced in concert by my dad, Billie Holiday was by far the greatest. I think there’s only two artists, Sinatra and Billie, that when you hear one note, you know you’re in the presence of a genius.

And I was so blessed to be in her presence when I was a little boy because of her relationship with my uncle and my dad. She used to call me Mister Billy and I would call her Miss Billie. She had done most of her great recordings on Commodore, and later followed Milt to Decca with songs like “Embraceable You,” “Fine and Mellow,” which he wrote with her, “Sunny Side of the Street,” “As Time Goes By,” “I Cover the Waterfront,” “Good Morning Heartache” and “Lover Man.”

But her most important song was one called “Strange Fruit,” which was very controversial because it was about lynching black people down South. Nobody wanted to hear this song. When Billie introduced the song at the Café Society, nobody wanted to be reminded about what was happening in our America of 1939, and nobody would record “Strange Fruit.” Even her great producer at Columbia Records, John Hammond, wouldn’t touch it. She was frustrated, so she turned to her friend, my Uncle Milt. And he told me years later she sang it for him the first time a cappella. Can you imagine that? That aching voice and that aching lyric. “Southern trees bear a strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root, black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees …” He told me, “Billy, I cried like a baby. And I said to her, ‘Lady Day, listen, I don’t care if we sell one record. People must hear this song. They’ve got to hear this song. We’ve got to get this made somehow.’”

So they worked out a special arrangement with Vocalian Records, and Billie Holiday, a great black jazz artist, and my Jewish Uncle Milt together recorded “Strange Fruit” a song about lynching down South, the song that Time magazine in De­cember of 1999 would call the song of the century. I’m so proud to say it’s on the family label, the Commodore.

One night, my dad was producing one of Billie Holiday’s concerts. It was at a place called the Stuyvesant Casino, Second Avenue around 9th Street. We all got there in the afternoon to watch her rehearse and to hang out with Dad of course, and Miss Billie said something to me that totally changed my life.

“Hey, Mister Billy, let’s go to the movies.”

So Billie Holiday and I walked down Second Avenue together, past Ratner’s, past the Central Plaza, to a little movie theater next door, called perfectly enough, the Loews Commodore. It later became known as the Fillmore East. And there sitting on Billie Holiday’s lap, I saw my first movie. And the movie was Shane: Alan Ladd, Van Heflin, Jean Arthur and JACK PALANCE! and this kid who I looked like, Brandon De Wilde. He was an extraordinary eight-year-old actor. I couldn’t believe it. It proved to me that even if you’re four foot six, you could be forty feet tall.

At the end of the movie, Shane rides off into the sunset. The kid runs after him and he screams, “Shane … come back.”

And Miss Billie whispered in my ear, “He ain’t never coming back.”

I sat there, the projection light flickering behind me, the music swelling as well as the tears in my eyes, and I looked at that kid on the big screen, and I wanted it to be me. And you know something? It was a Sunday.

One thought on “Billy/Billie

  1. Lovely piece. Proves it’s what you come to first which is important – I hate the film, think the child is a pain, but the story? Well I suppose I’ll never go back to it as it lives on in my (vulnerable) mind.

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