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Stella Heath, lead singer of French Gypsy Oak band
Stella Heath, lead singer of French Gypsy Oak band, will do a Billie Holiday show at OCA on Feb. 9. Photo: Fred Aube

Singing Her Pain

Jan 24, 2019
by Robert Feuer

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Stella Heath, a Petaluma native and co-founder of the French Oak Gypsy Band, will be performing the music of Eleanora Fagan Gough, better known as Billie Holiday, on Feb. 9th at the Occidental Center for the Arts.

Holiday sang mostly of love and heartache.  Her real life consisted of a fatherless upbringing by a teenage mother, a rape at age ten which led to Holiday being incarcerated in a Catholic reform school, work as a domestic and a prostitute, heavy drug use, jail, abusive relationships with men, and death at 44 of heart and liver disease.

To survive, she created Lady Day, a veneer of glitz and glamor, “a larger-than life person,” Heath says in our recent interview. 

Heath started singing jazz and classical, and acting, at age eight around the Bay Area.  Her principal jazz influences were Holiday, Louis Armstrong (her “ultimate musical influence”),  Edith Piaf, and Ella Fitzgerald. 

Starting at age 15, Heath attended an Arts school in Michigan, followed by Syracuse University, where, on a scholarship, she earned a classical acting degree. Then, five years in New York City studying acting, auditioning, “pounding the pavement,” Heath says. She sang in various venues  (sometimes with Harlem’s Marjorie Eliot, once a regular on the Greenwich Village jazz scene.) Heath became “a big Shakespeare nerd,” …“I love his usage of words. There’s a musicality to it.”

Returning to Petaluma in 2014 to be near family, she co-founded the jazz-oriented French Oak Gypsy Band, with Gabriel Pirard. Gypsy jazz emanated from Django Reinhart, she says.

Heath loves singing in French. She fell in love with the language and French culture, partly influenced by the film, Amelie.  “It’s fun to sing in French. The songs tell epic stories, very detailed, nuanced.” 

Heath’s four-piece band will back her on piano, saxophone, clarinet, cornet, upright bass, and drums. She’s been doing her research, and will include stories of Holiday’s life.

The Billie Holiday Project featuring Stella Heath Saturday, February 9th 8 - 10 PM.  More Info & Tickets

What stands out for Heath is Holiday’s “soulfulness” …”She gets at the heart of the song. She didn’t have a big voice, but she’s very present in each word, intimate, like she’s singing it just for you and knows exactly how you feel.”

Heath will be dressing in the “old-fashioned style,” emulating Holiday, including the signature gardenia in her hair. The show at the OCA will be cabaret-style and part of a celebration of Black History Month, with an art exhibit from the private collection of Raynetta James.

As Holiday often did, Heath will be closing with the haunting song about Southern lynchings,  “Strange Fruit.” This was risky for Holiday back then, and, though it’s no longer risky, that old world is far from gone.

“The song is unlike anything else. It’s one of the first protest songs about race,”

 says Heath. “It’s a hard subject, and takes a toll to sing it.”

Stella Heath is a woman on the rise. Her career bears following.

Go to stellaheathmusic.com for info on her teaching lessons - singing, playing guitar and piano, acting.

Real Music by Robert Feuer

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