One hundred years ago, Billie Holiday, as she later became known, was born in Philadelphia.The legendary singer would have an enormous impact on jazz and pop music. But that wasn't her goal. She simply wanted to make her music, her way.
Billie lived a troubled childhood but by 18 had found her way into a recording studio. The producer John Hammond said, "She was the first girl singer I'd come across who actually sang like an improvising jazz genius." She would soon cut her first record.
Billie had her own way but was able to work with other great talents. Producer Hammond organized her first commercial recording session with Benny Goodman. A couple of years later she starred alongside Duke Ellington in the film Symphony in Black and by 1937 was touring with Count Basie Orchestra.
Holiday would later say, "I don't think I ever sing the same way twice. The blues is sort of a mixed-up thing. You just have to feel it. Anything I do sing is part of my life." She was essentially doing what she was living and living in the moment.
Despite her success, there were critics who would thought she needed to change. You see, Billie lacked professional training and had a limited vocal range. But none of this would deter her. When challenged to evolve her work to something akin to another artist's performance Billie answered, "If I'm going to sing like someone else, then I don't need to sing at all."
While there were/are 100s of singers and actresses, there was only one Billie Holiday. And she knew it. Unfortunately, many brands struggle with this sort of thing. They often say, "we need to do what they're doing, or be more like they are." They'll even ask our firm to make them a brand, ad or other piece of communication that looks like the thing we did for someone else or that they saw someone else do. But success in a crowded marketplace doesn't work like that.
What works is born out of something Nilofer Merchant refers to as "onlyness". The concept promotes bringing our own life experience, unique point-of-view and particular value proposition to what we do. It worked for Billie.
Holiday said of her signature voice, "I hate straight singing. I have to change a tune to my own way of doing it. That's all I know." Practicing a similar sort of onlyness is the only way your voice or mine will ever be heard. It's the only way we'll ever stand out.