Billie Holiday was a true artist of her day and rose as a social phenomenon in the 1950s. Her soulful, unique singing voice and her ability to boldly turn any material that she confronted into her own music made her a superstar of her time. Today, Holiday is remembered for her masterpieces, creativity and vivacity, as many of Holiday’s songs are as well known today as they were decades ago. Holiday’s poignant voice is still considered to be one of the greatest jazz voices of all time.
Holiday began working with Lester Young in 1936, who pegged her with her now-famous nickname of “Lady Day.” When Holiday joined Count Basie in 1937 and then Artie Shaw in 1938, she became one of the very first black women to work with a white orchestra, an impressive accomplishment of her time. In the 1930s, when Holiday was working with Columbia Records, she was first introduced to the poem “Strange Fruit,” an emotional piece about the lynching of a black man. Though Columbia would not allow her to record the piece due to subject matter, Holiday went on to record the song with an alternate label, Commodore, and the song eventually became one of Holiday’s classics.
Though he never received any exaggerated title, Jimmy Smith certainly ruled the Hammond organ in the ’50s and ’60s. He revolutionized the instrument, showing it could be creatively used in a jazz context and popularized in the process. His Blue Note sessions from 1956 to 1963 were extremely influential and are highly recommended. Smith turned the organ into almost an ensemble itself. He provided walking bass lines with his feet, left hand chordal accompaniment, solo lines in the right, and a booming, funky presence that punctuated every song, particularly the up-tempo cuts. Smith turned the fusion of R&B, blues, and gospel influences with bebop references and devices into a jubilant, attractive sound that many others immediately absorbed before following in his footsteps. Smith initially learned piano both from his parents and on his own.
Smith was born in Norristown, Pa., and attended the Hamilton School of Music in 1948, and Ornstein School of Music in 1949 and 1950 in Philadelphia. Smith began playing the Hammond in 1951, and soon earned a great reputation that followed him to New York, where he debuted at the Café Bohemia. A Birdland date and 1957 Newport Jazz Festival appearance launched Smith’s career. He toured extensively through the ’60s and ’70s. His Blue Note recordings included superb collaborations with Kenny Burrell, Lee Morgan, Lou Donaldson, Tina Brooks, Jackie McLean, Ike Quebec, and Stanley Turrentine, among others. He also did several trio recordings.
A fine swing-oriented tenor saxophonist, Ventura is best-remembered for his attempt at popularizing bebop during the tail end of the music’s mid- to late-’40s heyday. Born Charles Venturo, one of thirteen children in a musical South Philadelphia family. His first instrument was C-melody sax. He switched to alto before eventually settling on tenor. Ventura left his day job at the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1942 to join Gene Krupa’s band. He became a featured soloist with Krupa, playing with the drummer from 1942-1943 and 1944-1946 (working in the interim with guitarist/bandleader Teddy Powell). Ventura achieved considerable popularity while with Krupa, winning a Down Beat magazine award as best tenor saxophonist in 1945.
One of the most popular saxophonists of all time (even his off records had impressive sales), Grover Washington, Jr. was long the pacesetter in his field. His roots were in R&B and soul-jazz organ combos, but he also fared very well on the infrequent occasions when he played straight-ahead jazz. A highly influential player, Washington was sometimes blamed for the faults of his followers; Kenny G. largely based his soprano sound on Grover’s tone. However, most of the time (except when relying on long hit medleys), Washington pushed himself with the spontaneity and chance taking of a masterful jazz musician.
Grover Washington, Jr., whose father also played saxophone, started playing music when he was ten and within two years was working in clubs. He picked up experience touring with the Four Clefs from 1959-1963 and freelancing during the next two years, before spending a couple years in the Army. He moved to Philadelphia in 1967, becoming closely identified with the city from then on, and worked with several organists, including Charles Earland and Johnny Hammond Smith, recording as a sideman for the Prestige label. His biggest break occurred in 1971, when Hank Crawford could not make it to a recording date; Washington was picked as his replacement, and the result was Inner City Blues, a big seller. From then on he became a major name, particularly after recording 1975’s Mister Magic and 1980’s Winelight; the latter included the Bill Withers hit “Just the Two of Us.”
Georgie Woods has improved, enhanced and inspired the lives of many throughout his multi-faceted career of entertainment and public service.
As “The Guy with the Goods,” Georgie Woods has entertained for five full decades on radio stations WHAT and WDAS. In 1960, Georgie became active in the civil rights movement as Vice President of the NAACP. Georgie became an outspoken advocate of equal opportunity and equal treatment for African Americans and joined the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cecil B. Moore in an ongoing campaign that took Woods from Washington, D.C., to Selma, Alabama. His other humanitarian efforts included a 17-day tour of Vietnam, as the first African American to entertain the troops.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was inducted into the Philadelphia Walk of Fame in 2017.
Alongside Willie Mae Ford Smith, Sister Rosetta Tharpe is widely acclaimed among the greatest Sanctified gospel singers of her generation; a flamboyant performer whose music often flirted with the blues and swing, she was also one of the most controversial talents of her day, shocking purists with her leap into the secular market — by playing nightclubs and theaters, she not only pushed spiritual music into the mainstream, but in the process also helped pioneer the rise of pop-gospel. Tharpe was born March 20, 1915 in Cotton Plant, AR; the daughter of Katie Bell Nubin, a traveling missionary and shouter in the classic gospel tradition known throughout the circuit as “Mother Bell,” she was a prodigy, mastering the guitar by the age of six. At the same time, she attended Holiness conventions alongside her mother, performing renditions of songs including “The Day Is Past and Gone” and “I Looked Down the Line.”
In time, the family relocated to Chicago, where Tharpe began honing her unique style; blessed with a resonant vibrato, both her vocal phrasing and guitar style drew heavy inspiration from the blues, and she further aligned herself with the secular world with a sense of showmanship and glamour unique among the gospel performers of her era. Signing to Decca in 1938, Tharpe became a virtual overnight sensation; her first records, among them Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Rock Me” and “This Train,” were smash hits, and quickly she was performing in the company of mainstream superstars including Cab Calloway and Benny Goodman. She led an almost schizophrenic existence, remaining in the good graces of her core audience by recording material like “Precious Lord,” “Beams of Heaven,” and “End of My Journey” while also appealing to her growing white audience by performing rearranged, uptempo spirituals including “Didn’t It Rain” and “Down by the Riverside.”