(Copyright 2001 Al Aronowitz)


Subject: Billie Holiday and Saddest Song Ever Sung
Date: Tue, 06 Mar 2001 04:18:02 -0000
From: "David Weaver" <>

Dear Al, 

Sorry you had to postpone the poetry reading last night.  It has been on my agenda to write you some time re "The Saddest Song Ever Song."  Ever since our first communication last fall about Billie Holiday, Ruby Elzy and "My Man's Gone Now," I've been trying to track down further information on Holiday's claim to you, made soon before she died in 1959, that Gershwin had offered the role of Serena when he, brother Ira and Dubose Heyward were creating "Porgy and Bess" in 1934-35.  

To date, every source I've investigated, every person knowledgable about Gershwin or the opera has told me there is no validity to Holiday's claim. Gershwin was composing an opera.  He wanted operatic voices and he got them -- Ruby Elzy (Serena) and Anne Brown (Bess) were both Julliard graduates, Todd Duncan (Porgy) was a voice teacher on the faculty of Howard University, both he and Abbie Mitchell (who as the original "Clara" introduced "Summertime") had sung with the all-black Aeolian Opera Company, and Warren Coleman (Crown) was a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music. Of all the main principals, only John Bubbles, who created the role of Sportin' Life, was not a trained singer.

One author who had written extensively about George Gershwin, said it's quite possible Gershwin may have heard Holiday, since she was singing in New York in the mid-30s.  Gershwin frequented Harlem, and was a great admirer of black talent.  But Billie Holiday, great a singer as she was, simply didn't have the type of voice Gershwin wanted for "Porgy and Bess."  

Last year I sang with a soprano for Opera/Columbus (a white soprano, incidentally), who performs "My Man's Gone Now" in concert.  She said in all of opera, that the song is one of the vocally difficult and demanding pieces for the soprano voice in all of opera.  She's also an admirer of Billie Holiday, and thinks a Holiday version of the song would've been unique and stylish, as was her "Summertime." But she said there's no way Holiday could've sung it the way Ruby Elzy sang it on stage.

Is it possible Billie Holiday's memory was faulty in 1959, perhaps as a result of her long-time addiction to drugs? The Gershwin expert theorized that performers sometimes make outrageous claims, thinking no one will ever check the facts.  And he said Billie claiming Gershwin asked her to be Serena is one of the most outrageous he's ever heard.

Your "Saddest Song Ever Sung" story is very moving and poignant, and I'm sure Billie Holiday believed it wholeheartedly as she told it to you.  But to quote another song from the opera, "It Ain't Necessarily So."  If I do turn up corroborating evidence, I'll share it with you immediately.

Best wishes -- enjoying every issue of TBJ!

David Weaver  ##

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Subject: Re: Billie Holiday and Saddest Song Ever Sung
Date: Tue, 06 Mar 2001 06:21:59 -0500
From: al aronowitz <>
To: David Weaver <

DAVID: Billie didn't sing it as opera.  She sang it as blues, just as Amina Baraka does when she accompanies me in my reading of the story.  That whole night remains very clear in my memory---one of he most moving moments of my life---and I am only reporting what happened.  Billie knew the lyrics of the song perfectly and sang them perfectly--as a blues song!

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Subject: Re: Billie Holiday and Saddest Song Ever Sung
Date: Tue, 06 Mar 2001 18:17:48 -0000
From: "David Weaver" <>

Hi Al!  

Thanks for your quick response.  I was not disputing Billie's singing of "My Man's Gone Now," I was only sharing the results of my research re her telling you she had been offered the part of Serena.  I know her rendition of the song would've been very soulful and bluesy, and not at all operatic as Ruby Elzy's was.  

Also, in re-reading my message to you, I should have noted that it is quite possible Billie auditioned for Gershwin and PORGY AND BESS.  According to the archives kept about the production, Gershwin auditioned more than ONE-THOUSAND SINGERS.  Since the cast was so large, Gershwin listened to probably every black singer of any significance, including the great Paul Robeson.

I know how vivid your memory of Billie Holiday and that time you spent with her must be.  She was truly a unique singer, and her signature songs like "Strange Fruit" will never be sung that way again.

Again, best wishes on rescheduling the poetry reading -- our weatherman here said the big blizzard didn't materialize as predicted, so I hope you're all okay in New York!

Take care.

David Weaver ##

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Subject: Re: Billie Holiday and Saddest Song Ever Sung
Date: Sat, 24 Mar 2001 20:12:02 -0000
From: "David Weaver" <>

Hello Al,

Ruby Elzy's last public performance was as Serena in "Porgy and Bess" in Denver, Colorado, on June 19, 1943.  It was the final stop in the "Porgy and Bess" tour that had begun the previous September, atfer the opera had played 286 triumphant performances on Broadway.

The company was going on hiatus after June, to resume the tour in the fall. However, Ruby would not be rejoining them, as she was booked to begin a solo concert tour and was to make her grand opera debut in the title role of "Aida" in 1944.  After Denver, her next performance was to be in New York City on July 6, 1943, in the all-Gershwin concert at Lewisohn Stadium.

En route from Denver to New York, Ruby felt ill and stopped to see a doctor in Detroit, Michigan.  An exam revealed a benign tumor of the uterus.  Her doctor urged that she have surgery before going on to New York.  She consented, and an operation was performed at Detroit's Parkside Hospital.

In accounts from her mother, who was with her at the time, Ruby made it thru the surgery okay.  She was in the recovery room and asked her nurses if she could have a drink of water, but they told her it was too soon.  A few minutes later, Ruby went into cardiac shock, and doctor's efforts to revive her failed.  She died on the afternoon of June 26, 1943, just one week after her last performance.  She was only 35 years old.

Thanks, Al.  Hope the poetry reading and concert you had to postpone is back on, and is a great success.  Take care.

David Weaver ##

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