Portrayals of three music greats — Sam Cooke, Ma Rainey and Billie Holiday — have a good chance of receiving Oscar nominations when the nods for the 93rd annual Academy Awards are announced on March 15.
Leslie Odom Jr.’s portrayal of Cooke in One Night in Miami (Amazon Studios) is likely to receive a nod for best performance by an actor in a supporting role, while Viola Davis’ performance as Rainey in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix) and Andra Day’s performance as Holiday in The United States vs. Billie Holiday (Hulu) are both solid candidates to receive nods for best performance by an actress in a leading role. Davis, who has already won an Oscar, Emmy and Tony, seems to have a better chance of being nominated, with Day currently seen as likely to finish just outside the top five.
If Day is nominated, this would be the second portrayal of Holiday to be recognized in that category. Diana Ross’ performance in Lady Sings the Blues received a 1972 nomination. This would make Holiday the first musical performer to inspire two Oscar-nominated portrayals.
The late Chadwick Boseman is also considered a sure thing to receive a best actor nomination for his role as Levee, an arrogant trumpet and cornet player in Rainey’s band, but that character is fictional.
In each of the last two years, actors won Oscars in lead categories for their portrayals of music legends. Last year, Renée Zellweger won best actress for playing Judy Garland. Two years ago, Rami Malek won best actor for playing Freddie Mercury of Queen.
Cooke, Holiday and Rainey have long been recognized as musical giants.
In 1986, Cooke became one of the 10 original artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Four years later, Rainey became the second female artist — following fellow blues legend Bessie Smith — to be inducted as an early influence. Holiday was honored as an early influence in 2000.
Holiday and Cooke have both received lifetime achievement awards from the Recording Academy: in 1987 and 1999, respectively. Rainey has not received that top honor yet. But all three artists have recordings in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
All three of these figures died before their time, which, of course, adds to the drama of their lives. Cooke was just 33 in 1964 when he was shot and killed by the manager of a motel in Los Angeles. Holiday died of cirrhosis at age 44 in 1959. Rainey died of a heart attack at age 53 in 1939.
Here’s a concise look at these performers.
Ma Rainey: Rainey, born Gertrude Malissa Pridgett in Columbus, Ga., released “See See Rider Blues” in 1925. The track featured Louis Armstrong on cornet and Fletcher Henderson on piano. It was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2004. The song has been revived many times as “See See Rider” or “C.C. Rider.” A version by Eric Burdon and the Animals reached the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1966.
Rainey is also remembered for “Countin’ the Blues” (1924) and “Prove It on Me Blues” (1928).
Rainey’s life inspired August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. A 1984-85 Broadway run received three Tony nominations, including best play.
Billie Holiday: Holiday, born Eleanor Gough in Philadelphia, landed her first hits with Teddy Wilson and his Orchestra in 1935, before going out on her own the following year. She has nine recordings in the Grammy Hall of Fame, which puts her in a tie with Ella Fitzgerald as the woman with the most entries. Holiday’s nine Hall of Fame entries are “My Man” (1937), “Strange Fruit” (1939), “God Bless the Child” (1941), “Solitude” (1941), “Embraceable You” (1944), “Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be)” (1945), “Crazy He Calls Me” (1949), Lady Sings the Blues (1956) and Lady in Satin (1958).
Holiday never had a smash album, though the soundtrack to Ross’ Lady Sings the Blues (which borrowed the title of Holiday’s aforementioned 1956 album) topped the Billboard 200 for two weeks in 1973. In 2000, Ross inducted Holiday into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ross opened with an a cappella performance of “Strange Fruit” and later also performed “God Bless the Child.”
Audra McDonald won a 2014 Tony for best actress in a play for portraying Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.
Sam Cooke: Cooke, born Samuel Cook (without the “e”) in Clarksdale, Miss., was the lead singer of The Soul Stirrers from 1950-56. Cooke landed his biggest hit, “You Send Me,” in 1957, before the inception of the Hot 100. He had four top 10 hits on the Hot 100 in the 1960s: “Chain Gang,” “Twistin’ the Night Away,” “Another Saturday Night” and the posthumous hit “Shake.”
Cooke landed six Grammy nominations, but never won a Grammy in competition. (Bear in mind that his biggest hit, “You Send Me,” was released the year before the inception of the Grammys, which, like the Hot 100, launched in 1958.)
Cooke has four songs in the Grammy Hall of Fame (which is open to all recordings that are at least 25 years old): “You Send Me,” “Wonderful World” (1960), “Bring It On Home to Me” (1962, with Lou Rawls on backing vocal) and “A Change Is Gonna Come” (1965). “A Change Is Gonna Come” was released as the B-side of Cooke’s hit “Shake,” though it’s considered far more of a classic than the A-side.
Cooke had three top 30 albums on the Billboard 200: Sam Cooke (No. 16 in 1958), The Best of Sam Cooke (No. 22 in 1962) and the classic live album Sam Cooke at the Copa (No. 29 in 1964).
In addition to the portrayals of Garland and Mercury that received Oscars in the last two years, nine other portrayals of real-life music personalities — both legends and lesser-known figures — have been honored over the years. The others are Mahershala Ali as Don Shirley in Green Book (2018), Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose (2007), Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash in Walk the Line (2005), Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in Ray (2004), Geoffrey Rush as Australian pianist David Helfgott in Shine (1996), F. Murray Abraham as Mozart’s rival Antonio Salieri in Amadeus (1984), Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl (1968), and James Cagney as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942).