Using Holiday’s legacy to help Boys and Girls
Molly Johnson’s tribute to jazz icon benefits children’s charity
A century ago on April 7, an infant girl named Eleanora Fagan was born in Philadelphia.
Her mother Sarah Fagan was not married to her father, Clarence Holiday, a jazz musician. He, in fact, was not on the scene, but still that young girl would adopt his name when she began her musical career.
Billie Holiday is one of the great vocalists of the 20th century, but her story was full of sorrow and even persecution by American authorities. Movies and books have been made and written. But few, if any, are taking Holiday’s greatest legacy, her songs, and using them to help others.
That is what Molly Johnson, the Toronto-based jazz singer, songwriter and radio personality, has undertaken with her album Because of Billie.
Johnson’s generous impulse has turned into a journey of sorts, trying to use some of the album royalties so they can be directed to the Boys and Girls Clubs of North America.
“My research shows Billie Holiday had no family, so any royalties from her work are going to record companies,” Johnson says. “I’ve spent two years tracking down the royalty scheme on my own dime. Who has got it? Why have they got it? And will they give some of it up?
“I’m about halfway there. It’s a work in progress.”
Her own record company, Universal, has the royalties along with a Universal subsidiary Casablanca Records.
“I am about to write another letter to Casablanca. This is the year to make money off Billie Holiday. The week of April 7 was probably the biggest grossing week for Billie Holiday copyrights ever because of the 100th anniversary of her birth.
“Everybody on the planet did songs, recorded albums, everybody is doing Billie. Imagine if you could take some of that and give it to the Boys and Girls Clubs.”
She chose the clubs because when school is out, they are a place where children and teenagers can go across North America. That allows her to fundraise for the clubs in every city she plays in.
Johnson, who, at 56, is giving her musical career a reboot after raising her two sons who are now teenagers, says she did not want to make a “gratuitous” Holiday record. “I wanted it to be something that means something. I wanted to paint a different colour into the canvas.”
The album, which earned a Juno nomination for best jazz vocal album, contains songs made famous by Holiday, including God Bless The Child and Strange Fruit, and others by George Gershwin and Duke Ellington.
“I believe Billie was a bit of a punk. She was incredibly outspoken, a feminist before her time and a civilrights advocate. She was a victim of the times, but she herself was not a victim.”
Johnson feels a very strong connection to Holiday’s story. Many people who hear Johnson sing compare her to Lady Day, a compliment she brushes off.
Johnson’s parents, who saw Holiday perform, were deeply involved in the civil-rights movement in the U.S. Her black father, John E. Johnson, was a professional football player from Philadelphia.
Her mother Suzanne was a white New Yorker. They married in 1948.
The Johnson family moved to Toronto, where Molly was born and where her father became a teacher and an active community figure. Her mother was one of the early members of CUSO and co-founded the Match International Centre.