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Billie Holiday and the History of the Microphone

John Szwed’s 4-minute history of the microphone.

When Billie Holiday first entered into a recording studio in 1933 at the age of 18, she was joined by some intimidating company. She had been brought there by John Hammond, a record promoter responsible for the career of Holiday’s idol, Bessie Smith. At the studio, she was set to close out a session led by Ethel Waters, at the time the most popular singer in New York. Benny Goodman, king of the jazz clarinet, was leading the recording session.

Yet the most intimidating element of the session was not a person but an object: Holiday was afraid of the microphone.

“Why do I have to sing into that thing? Why can’t I just sing like I do at the club?”

According to microphone scholar Paula Lockheart, Holiday’s anxieties about microphone singing were not uncommon: Some early recording studio performers were so intimidated by microphones that “there were cases when the microphone would be disguised as a lampshade to help calm the singer.”

Luckily for us, Lady Day never did resort to using a lampshade to calm her nerves: She not only embraced the use of the microphone, she revolutionized it. By bringing the “Harlem cabaret style” into the studio, she helped introduce a more subtle and restrained style of singing to recorded music. Here, John Szwed gives us the rundown on how Holiday — along with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Johnnie Ray — helped to permanently change the way artists approached singing into the mic.

This style of singing would have previously been impossible to capture without the advances made in microphone technology in the ‘30s and ‘40s — it is not much of an exaggeration to say that without the engineers at Shure and RCA, there would have been no Billie Holiday. These advances not only made improvements to the sound quality of microphone recordings, but also the aesthetic qualities of the mics themselves.

As microphone technology shifted away from the bidirectional ribbon (like the diamond-shaped RCA 44) and towards more compact, unidirectional models, the recording instruments started to become oddly stylish. The classic Shure microphone, first introduced in the early ‘30s, was the Model 55, a luxurious design whose distinctive outer cage was based on the grille of the 1937 Oldsmobile Six convertible coupe. It was this model that became popular among crooners and rockers — including Sinatra and Elvis Presley — as well as politicos ranging from Kennedy to Castro. Even Holiday’s virtuosic jazz-singing rival, Ella Fitzgerald, was closely linked with the powerhouse design of the Model 55.

Fidel Castro, on the cover of Life Magazine in 1959 with a microphone model after 1937 Oldsmobile Coupe.

But Holiday’s signature mic, the Shure 730B, was something slightly different. It had a more rounded Art Deco design with a crystal core. Though the model was significantly cheaper, it was also oddly elegant and uniquely resistant to background noise and adverse recording conditions. Yet what it was able gained in sonic sensitivity, it also lost in physical durability — the crystal-core microphones were notoriously fragile. For our singer of perpetual sorrow, the fragility of the crystal mic seems particularly apt. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Shure 730B is still known today as the “Bille Holiday mic.”



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An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.