I’d like to thank the fabulous dancer Rebecca Shannon for researching this article honoring Billie Holiday’s birthday today.
Happy Birthday, Billie Holiday (Eleanora Fagan) 1915-1955…Her intensely personal style melded the blues with a sophisticated take on traditional melody lines and musical timing which would revolutionize traditional popular music. She turned the Tin Pan Alley songs she was forced to sing in her early career into something uniquely her own by phrasing behind the beat and creating harmonies inspired by her favorite horn players, Louis Armstrong and Lester Young.
Information about her childhood is sketchy and often debated but it is known that her father was a teenaged musician who later played with Fletcher Henderson and her mother was 13 when Holiday was born. For the first ten years of her life she was raised by the mother-in law of her mother’s half-sister while her mother took jobs as a worker on passenger trains. Holiday was put into protective custody in a Catholic reform school when she was 11 after being raped by a neighbor. She was 12 when she was finally released to her mother who once again left Holiday in the care of relatives. Holiday got a job cleaning in a brothel and heard the music of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith for the first time. Those artists would remain her biggest influences; “I always wanted Bessie’s big sound and Pop’s feeling.”
Holiday at age 2
When Holiday was 14 her mother was working as a prostitute in a brothel in Harlem and within days of joining her there, she was working too, at $5 a time. The house was raided and both women spent time in a workhouse. Holiday starting singing in clubs around Harlem after that, taking her stage name from the then popular actress Billie Dove and her birth father’s sur-name of Halliday-later changing it to Holiday.
She got her first big break when the producer John Hammond heard her and wrote her up in a review for Melody Maker magazine and brought Benny Goodman to hear her. At the age of 18 she made her recording debut with Goodman singing “Your Mother’s Son-In-Law” and “Rifflin’ the Scotch.” Hammond is quoted saying of Holiday, “Her singing almost changed my music tastes and my musical life, because she was the first girl singer I’d come across who actually sang like an improvising jazz genius.”
Holiday spent the next year moving up the New York club scene ladder, appearing in a short with Duke Ellington’s band singing “The Saddest Tale” and performing at the Apollo Theater. She was signed to Brunswick records and made her first recordings with Teddy Wilson’s band. “What A Little Moonlight Can Do” was a revolutionary success and the company began treating Holiday as an artist in her own right, letting her record under her own name with some of the finest swing musicians of the day, including Lester Young. The record company was struggling and to save money there were no expensive arrangements written for the musicians which meant that everything was improvised and Holiday was given a flat fee instead of royalties. Holiday’s recordings under her own name and with Teddy Wilson from 1935 to the early 40’s became important additions to the jazz vocal historic library.
In 1937 Holiday worked briefly with Count Basie’s band. Ella Fitzgerald, touring with Chick Webb’s band, was her biggest rival at the time (the two women would later become good friends) and competed against each other in the battle of the bands at the Savoy Ballroom. Metronome magazine declared Fitzgerald and Webb the winners, Downbeat magazine declared Holiday and Basie the winners but a straw poll of the audience gave the victory to Fitzgerald and Webb. Holiday was fired from Basie’s band (conflicting reasons were given) and a month later she was picked up by Artie Shaw.
Touring with Artie Shaw placed her in the unusual position of being an African-American performer in an all-white band. It also made things difficult, especially in the racially divided south where Shaw fought constantly to allow her on the bandstand with the rest of the band. The stress of the situation and the fact that Shaw played mostly instrumentals giving her little singing time on stage ended her time with the band in 1938.
In 1939 she was singing at the legendary Cafe’ Society when she was introduced to the song “Strange Fruit” based on a poem by a Jewish school teacher from the Bronx named Abel Meeropol. At first she was afraid of retaliation for the song’s strong lyrics portraying a lynching but it soon became her most famous song. When she sang it in the nightclub she had all of the waiters silence the audience, the lights dim with only a small spotlight on her face and at the end of the song the club would go black. Holiday would be gone when the lights came back up. Her two years at Cafe’ Society made her a star.
During the early 40’s Holiday recorded many hits including “Travelin” Light”, “Lover Man”, and her own composition with Arthur Herzog, Jr., “God Bless the Child”. Another of her compositions, “Don’t Explain ” was written and recorded in 1944 after finding lipstick on her husbands collar. In 1946 she appeared in the film “New Orleans” with Louis Armstrong and Woody Herman but her part and Armstrong’s were cut drastically (she ended up playing a maid) so as not to give the impression that black people had anything to do with the creation of jazz. Her drug problems were also beginning to affect her performance.
On May 16, 1947 Holiday was arrested for possession of heroin. 11 days later, sick and dehydrated, Holiday got notice while she stood on trial that her lawyer was not interested in representing her. She plead guilty and the D.A. intervened on her behalf and she was sent to a minimum security prison in West Virgina for nearly a year.
Her manager arranged for a comeback concert at Carnegie Hall and with a great deal of trepidation, Holiday agreed. The concert was a sold out success with Holiday singing over 30 songs from her repertoire, passing out from the experience after the third curtain call. In 1948 she starred on her own Broadway show “Holiday on Broadway” but despite critical acclaim it folded after three weeks. She was arrested again for drug possession in San Francisco at the Mark Twain Hotel in 1949. As a result of her drug convictions her Cabaret Card was revoked making it impossible for her to perform any place where alcohol was served. Her money making ability was greatly curtailed and even though she was still recording and still popular with her audience she was not making much from the proceeds due to bad management.
By the 1950’s drugs and alcohol and her relationships with abusive men began to take a toll on her health and her voice. Her recordings for Verve at the time were as popular as ever but her voice had coarsened and sounded fragile, without it’s former vibrancy. Her autobiography, “Lady Sings the Blues”, was ghost written by New York Post journalist William Dufty in 1956. Dufty based the book on conversations he had with Holiday along with interviews of people she was close to. To accompany the release of the book, Holiday recorded a complimentary album of the same name with several new songs and new versions of old favorites.
On November 10, 1956, Holiday gave two concerts at Carnegie Hall to sold out audiences. The recording of the second concert would be released posthumously in 1961. Holiday rose to the occasion and thrilled the crowd with her stunning elegance and undiminished personal singing style. The critic Nat Hentoff of Downbeat magazine wrote of her performance,” The beat flowed in her uniquely sinuous, supple way of moving the story along; the words became her own experiences; and coursing through it all was Lady’s sound-a texture simultaneously steel-edged and yet soft inside; a voice that was almost unbearably wise in disillusion and yet still childlike again at the center.”
In early 1959, Holiday was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the live and was told to stop drinking. She did for a short time but took it up again. In May she was taken to Metropolitan Hospital suffering from cirrhosis and heart disease. As she lay dying she was arrested for drug possession and police raided her hospital room. She remained under police guard until her death on July 17, 1959 at the age of 44.
Frank Sinatra, who was a great admirer told Ebony magazine, “With few exceptions, every major pop singer in the U.S. during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius.”