Charles Holland

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The tale of vocalist Charles Holland is a classic example of the rampant racism in the American music scene. He should not be confused with another black vocalist named Charles Holland whose work on the…
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The tale of vocalist Charles Holland is a classic example of the rampant racism in the American music scene. He should not be confused with another black vocalist named Charles Holland whose work on the gospel scene includes membership in the Gospel Hummingbirds band. Both singers will have had bad experiences in American society, but the subject of this biography happened to want membership in what at the time was basically a white-only club. The partial integration of the classical music scene since the '40s is something worth singing an aria or two about, but for Holland the message he kept hearing was simple: "Boy, why don't you just stay put in the Fletcher Henderson band and sing them jazz songs?"

His brother Herbert Lee Holland was also a musician, indoctrinated in the trumpet in the famed Jenkins' Orphanage Band. The trumpeter was awarded the nickname of "Peanuts" early in his career as a swinger, hardly the kind of reference Charles Holland would have wanted when applying for a job at Carnegie Hall. No matter, he could have had a glowing letter of recommendation from Verdi himself and it wouldn't have helped once they saw the color of his skin. Needless to say, membership in the romping Fletcher Henderson band of the early '30s, where Holland went through the vocalist-frontman rotation, was not the sort of credential to impress a stuffy symphony board.

During the second World War, Holland picked up a booster in the form of composer Mark Biltzstein, a member of the military who was actually engaged in writing a grand war symphony. The piece was eventually premiered at the City Center in New York in the spring of 1946. It was one of the best jobs Holland got during this decade or the next, a statement easily supported by the status of his fellow performers, including members of the Robert Shaw Chorale, the New York Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein, and Orson Welles. Throughout the decade Biltzstein implored conductors to give Holland a chance, but most were afraid an uproar would ensue were a black man wearing a tuxedo to come out and stand in front of the orchestra. There was a fear of a lynching party, rock and roll dancing in the aisles, or something even worse.

Holland eventually ditched the United States for Italy in order to seek equality as both a man and a lyric tenor. Despite the so-called American nature of jazz, brother Peanuts Holland had to do the same thing, relocating to Stockholm ,where he died. Charles Holland finally did get that gig at Carnegie Hall, though. The booking took place when he was almost 80 years old. In addition to his greenhorn appearances in the Henderson discography, the singer made several excellent recordings with pianist Dennis Russell Davies.