Remembering Detroit legend DJ Holiday
The Google search "DJ Holiday" will lead to a bunch of hits for a C-list rapper and maybe, if the algorithm works just right, something about a Detroit singer. DJ Holiday was a phenom with one of those warm, room-filling, larger-than-life voices. She was a regular at Bert’s Market Place Jazz Club singing with the RGB Trio during Thursday open Mic nights.
Holiday was found dead in a home in West Detroit earlier this week. The singer had been squatting in the property and presumably froze to death, after the heating was cut off, although the official cause of death was ruled a heart attack.
She started singing publicly in Detroit in the ’60s at the Black Horse Saloon, but had since childhood. Sixteen years ago she started singing at Bert’s in Eastern Market, when she met longtime friend Bill Meyer who she called her “Piano Man.”
“She struck everybody right away as a unique person,” Meyer said of Holiday. “She was a really beautiful soul.”
Meyer worked with Holiday on Before I Go, her first and only CD. He developed the idea for the CD last year as a way to help Holiday make money. She told Meyer that before she met him she had never made any money singing.
Holiday had also recently caught the eye of French filmmaker Arno Bitschy, who made the documentary “Reslience.” The documentary focuses on the triumphs and struggles of the city from the declaration of bankruptcy to the mayor’s State of the City speech in 2015. Holiday was featured on the film’s soundtrack alongside other Detroit musicians.
After “Resilience” premiered, Bitschy turned his attention to Holiday in particular. The filmmaker had been working on a documentary about Holiday’s life and had recently extended an invitation to Holiday to sing at the film’s Paris premiere. It would have been Holiday’s first trip outside the country.
“Everything was new to her,” Meyer said, noting the tragic timing of the singer’s death. “She was on her way up.”
The tragedy is exactly the sort of stuff legend is made of. But Holiday herself was grounded in reality.
“She was real, she was painfully real,” Meyer said. “Her singing was honest and real. She wasn’t pretentious or affectatious. And her emotions were direct.”
She was straightforward. She kept her eyes open, making eye contact with her audience throughout her sets, avoiding the sort of eyes-closed arm-waving that characterizes many Jazz singers. DJ Holiday was known for singing soulful ballads and had a deep connection to the music of Billie Holiday, whose life mirrored her own in many ways. She lived a hard life, full of the sorts of things that should trample the human spirit—poverty, loss, abuse. But, at least in song, she soared. Holiday created a community around her voice, connecting jazz junkies and newbies alike around her singing.
“That’s her story," Meyer said. "She sang like Billie and emulated Billie.”
Dave Tollington, a former senior VP at Warner Music in Toronto started coming across the river seven years ago and eventually found his way to Bert’s, where he met Holiday. He ended up helping Meyer with parts of Before I Go.
“She used to sit by the washrooms, sort of behind the stage by herself,” Tollington said. “She was just mesmerizing and the next time I came it was my birthday and a friend asked if she would sing 'Don’t Explain,' a Billie Holiday song, and she sang that one straight at me. I literally had tears going down my face it was that powerful.”
After that song he asked Holiday to join his table. He quickly became fascinated by her story and logged hours of tapes of their conversations. Like many people that found themselves within range of her voice, Tollington was drawn in by Holiday’s authenticity.
“She was one of hundreds of singers, but for me she was the one,” Tollington said.
Friends will be gathering at Bert’s Thursday night at 8:30 pm to celebrate the singer's life. There will also be a formal memorial service in March when her documentary will premiere in the United States.