(By Troy Taylor)
On July 17, 1959, singer Billie Holiday died in New York at the age of 44. Nicknamed “Lady Day” by her friend and musical partner Lester Young, Holiday had a seminal influence on jazz, blues and popular music. She had a difficult childhood and a troubled life that involved violence, prostitution, drugs and alcohol — but no one could sing like Billie. She worked with the best in the business, recorded amazing music but then descended into a haze from which she never returned. By the 1950s, Holiday’s drug abuse, drinking, and relationships with abusive men caused her health to deteriorate.
In early 1959, she was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. She stopped drinking for a time and then relapsed. On May 31, she was taken to Metropolitan Hospital in New York with liver and heart disease. She was arrested for drug possession as she lay dying and was under police guard when she died from pulmonary edema and heart failure caused by cirrhosis of the liver on July 17. In her final years, she had been progressively swindled out of her earnings, and she died with 70-cents in the bank. It was a cruel and tragic end to a hard life lived by a beautiful woman and amazing singer.
But there are some who say that Billie Holiday was cursed earlier in her career when she recorded a song called “Gloomy Sunday,” a tune that has become infamous as an ode to suicide.
“Gloomy Sunday,” also known as the “Hungarian Suicide Song”, is a song composed by Hungarian pianist and composer Rezső Seress and published in 1933. The original lyrics were titled Vége a világnak (The world is ending) and were about despair caused by war, and ending in a quiet prayer about the people’s sins. Poet László Jávor wrote his own lyrics to the song, titled Szomorú vasárnap (Sad Sunday), in which the protagonist wants to commit suicide following his lover’s death. The latter lyrics ended up becoming more popular while the former were essentially forgotten. The song was first recorded in Hungarian by Pál Kalmár in 1935.
“Gloomy Sunday” was first recorded in English by Hal Kemp in 1936, with lyrics by Sam M. Lewis. It became well-known throughout much of the English-speaking world after the release of a version by Billie Holiday in 1941. Lewis’s lyrics referred to suicide, and the record label described it as the “Hungarian Suicide Song”.
Over the years, several legends have emerged about the song, mostly involving it being allegedly connected with various numbers of suicides, and radio networks reacting by purportedly banning the song. Press reports in the 1930s associated at least nineteen suicides, both in Hungary and America, with “Gloomy Sunday,” although those deaths are hard to verify — except for one. In January 1968, some thirty-five years after writing the song, its composer Rezső Seress did commit suicide. He survived jumping out of a window in Budapest, but later in the hospital choked himself to death with a wire.
Billie Holiday’s version of the song is the best known and is so depressing that in 1941, the BBC banned her version of it from being broadcast because they felt it was detrimental to wartime morale. The ban wasn’t lifted until 2002.