Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 10 December 1920, Chicago IL; d 30 August 2013, Oakland CA) Pianist, vocalist; one of Billie Holiday's accompanists in Lady's later years. Memry's parents thought they could not have children; when a doctor told her she was expecting at age 53, her mother knew she would never forget that day, so she named her daughter Memry. Memry said many years later that her mother had died while she was dancing, at age 98. Memry studied classical piano, but like Nina Simone, was never going to make a living in classical music because she was black. After moving to the West Coast in 1950 she played and sang in Gerald Wilson's band, and at all the jazz clubs in the Bay area. 'She pushed the band - she was an asset,' said alto saxophonist John Handy, who played in the Wilson band 1952-3. 'We were all in love with her. She was quite beautiful.' Researching an article called The House That Bop Built, about Jimbo's Bop City in San Francisco (U. of California Press 1996), Carol P. Chamberland met Memry, and pointed out that she was one of the few women to make her way in that world, along with pianist Jane Getz, saxophonist Vi Redd and very few others.

Billie Holiday turned up at the Downbeat Club in San Francisco in the Spring of 1954 without any music and without an accompanist. Memry was playing intermissions there, accompanied Lady on the gig and then joined her on the road for 18 months, appearing with her at Carnegie Hall in 1954. 'I had always wanted to play Carnegie Hall,' she said. 'I thought I would never be on that stage after I left classical music.' She was interviewed at length by Linda Keuhl in the early 1970s about her months with Lady, her remarks later quoted in Donald Clarke's book, Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon.

On the subject of accompanying a singer: 'It's almost too nebulous to describe, but it's the authority that the singer gives you to help them sing, to make them sing, to give them a platform to stand on. Some think they have to surrender authority, but that's the one thing that makes for a poor accompaniest [...] To overpower them with florid weavings is bad, but you do have to have sufficient authority to make them feel safe with you.'

But 18 months with Lady was all Memry could take. About Louis McKay she said, 'He was one of the most ruthless men I have ever met; he exploited her completely.' All her jewelry was gone, and she did not even have enough clothes, and when they went to Alaska for a couple of weeks, 'although we got there in the summertime, I have never been so cold in my life [...] her teeth chattered in the dressing room; she was coughing and her throat was in the worst shape it could possibly be in. I think she was walking around with a low-grade viral pneumonia.' In fact she was probably in heroin withdrawal at the time, and, Memry said, drinking at least a bottle of hard liquor every day.

Memry is quoted at great length in Clarke's book; her account of a Carnegie Hall concert is fascinating, where Lady was in such poor shape she couldn't figure out she was supposed to be singing 'Blue Moon', but ended by tearing the house down. And Memry is revealing about Lady's bad taste in men. After one violent altercation between Lady and McKay, she found them in a romantic situation later the same day. Years later she told Linda Keuhl, 'Now I understand it perfectly. This is typical of this kind of person, that needs punishment. After they've gotten the punishment, they've been so completely gratified that they can enter into a sexual or a love tryst.' Lady felt guilty about her mother, but didn't express a lot of love for her; Memry thought it was possible that Lady's mother had turned her against men: 'You don't have to discuss a situation with a child. A child interprets what he sees in our behaviour; children are seldom wrong. Whatever she was, it was programmed.' 

After an automobile accident in December 1965, Memry changed careers from music to education and public health. She earned a bachelor's degree in psychology at the University of San Francisco and a master's in public health at UC Berkeley, then worked at Mission High in San Fransico, and became chief administrator for the Department of Public Health in that city. Moving to Oakland, she worked at Skyline and McClymonds high schools, and became a Resource Specialist in the city's school system: so she went from the jazz world to being a high school teacher, then acquired more training to be qualified to help kids who needed special education.

There is a mistake in Clarke's book, where he says that Memry was only about 23 years old when she joined Lady on the road; in fact she was a decade older than that. Coincidentally, her close friend in old age, Heather Kaney, said that '[W]hen I met her she told me she was 80 years old, but the school district and her doctors thought she was 70. She counselled me to lie about my age to doctors. She said, 'They make different medical decisions if they think you are 70 versus 80.'