On the centennial of Billie Holiday's birth, New York singer Joey Arias has been traveling the world, performing his homage to the legendary singer. He was at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall on the actual centennial (April 7, 1915).
Since the 1990s, Arias has often done the show in drag, and sometimes he wears Holiday's fox fur and jewelry loaned to him for specific occasions by a grandnephew of her last husband Louis McKay ("It's a long story," Arias says about how he met the nephew on Facebook). Arias brings his Holiday tribute to the Contemporary Arts Center Friday, though he's not sure if he'll bring Holiday's wardrobe, he says.
Though Arias sometimes wears a gardenia in his hair like Holiday sometimes did, he is not doing an impersonator act. His career is marked by a memorable star turn performing with David Bowie and Klaus Nomi on Saturday Night Live in 1979. And he starred for six years in Cirque du Soleil's first adult-themed show, Zumanity, in Las Vegas. Holiday's music had helped him find a singing voice that he really likes.
"When I sang 'Good Morning Heartache," for him, Andy Warhol said, 'Don't even say Billie Holiday. That's just you,'" Arias says via phone from his New York apartment. "'That's your voice, that's you.'"
"My voice happens to have the same raspy elegance," he adds.
Arias was born in North Carolina and grew up in Los Angeles, where he sang in pop bands, before moving to New York at the age of 17 in the mid-1970s. While in New York, he discovered Holiday's music.
"I fell in love with her voice, with the tonality, her phrasing," he says. "I didn't know too much about Billie, I just thought her voice was beautiful. I was like, 'I want to sound like that.'"
In the late 1980s, he created his first full Holiday show, which a musician friend goaded him into titling "Strange Fruit," after Holiday's song protesting racial oppression and referring to lynchings. The show ran for almost a year, and a singing style similar to Holiday's became a focus for him.
"I moved forward doing pop tunes — 'A Hard Day's Night' or Madonna a la Billie's style of singing," he says. "Then I'd go back to doing my Billie show again. Then back to pop."
His homage includes some of Holiday's best known songs.
"I love 'You've Changed' from Lady in Satin," he says. "It's a beautiful song about love and it's got a beautiful melody. I love 'God Bless the Child.' I used to do the songs she sang most of her life and I throw in a few others: 'Ain't Misbehavin',' 'Everything I Have Is Yours,' 'Violets for Your Furs.'"
Arias didn't do the show in drag until he was asked to perform at New York's drag festival, Wigstock.
"I had been doing more Led Zeppelin-y stuff and crazy stuff," he says. "Lady Bunny said 'Can you do a beautiful Billie Holiday song for Wigstock? Everything is so wacky and crazy, it'd be cool if you came out and did something really pretty.'"
A friend suggested he appropriate Holiday's look from Lady in Satin, with a 1950s gown and long earings and gloves.
"I came out and sang and people freaked out," he says. "People started calling me to book me. The money changed and everything changed. So there it was. I've been doing these shows in drag."
But Arias also presents his vision of Holiday.
"People always say, 'Oh Billie Holiday, what a sad story,'" he says. "It's like, 'No, not at all.' She gave so much. She wasn't a downer. She's not like Amy Winehouse. She was classy; she was elegant. She lived up to the name 'Lady Day' — sheer elegance. She spoke out [about] racism and about women. She put that foot forward and said 'F—k it, it's out there.' She spoke like a sailor and didn't care what people had to say. She didn't like walking in the back door. That's why she opened Cafe Society. It was a place where blacks and whites could mingle."
Mingling in New York turned up many opportunities for Arias. When he arrived in the city, he took a sales job at the couture shop Fiorucci, where he was known to sing and perform as well.
"I met a lot of people there," he says. "I honed my craft of performance, but at the same time making sales. But I stood out like a big sore thumb. I sang on the floor. But people would buy something. Fiorucci was a big part of my life."
It's where he met fellow singer and unconventional performer Nomi.
"I was hanging out with Klaus and we were having a ball," Arias says. "He started to get famous, and they put a band together for him and he didn't know what he was doing so I joined him to help out. ...[W]e had another show and another show and it was great. We were just having fun, and before you know it, there's David Bowie at the Mudd Club, going crazy seeing Klaus and I, and [Bowie] wanted to do a project with him. Before you know it, I am invited to do Saturday Night Live with them. ...
"We did three songs. People freaked out when we wore these (Thierry) Mugler gowns and Bowie came out in a Chinese airline stewardess' outfit. We were just having fun doing it. It wasn't like we were going to change history, it was just having a good time."
Manhattan's downtown has changed, and though Arias lives in the same rent-controlled Greenwich Village apartment he acquired in 1981, he now runs into people like Susan Sarandon and Alec Baldwin when he walks the streets, he says. As a fixture in New York's nightclub and cabaret scene, Arias says they're the peers and neighbors he now chats with about his new projects.