Background and Early Years
Billie Holiday was born on April 7, 1915, as Eleanora Fagan, and was later nicknamed “Lady Day,” was an American jazz singer, composer, a seminal influence on jazz and pop singers, and is generally regarded as one of the greatest female jazz vocalists.
Billie Holiday had a difficult childhood, which greatly affected her life and career. Much of her childhood is clouded by conjecture and legend, some of it propagated by her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, published in 1956. Her professional pseudonym was taken from Billie Dove, an actress she admired, and Clarence Holiday, her probable father. At the outset of her career, she spelled her last name "Halliday," presumably to distance herself from her neglectful father, but eventually changed it back to "Holiday."
Holiday's grandfather was one of 17 children of an enslaved Black woman from Virginia and a White, Irish plantation owner. There are conflicting reports about whether her 13-year-old mother, Sadie Fagan, and 15-year-old father, Clarence, were ever married, but if they were, they did not live together for any significant period. Clarence played guitar and banjo professionally and joined jazz-band leader Fletcher Henderson in the early 1930s, so he was on the road much of the time she he spent little time with his family.
There is some controversy regarding Holiday's paternity, stemming from a copy of her birth certificate in the Baltimore archives that lists the father as a "Frank DeViese." Some historians consider this an anomaly, probably inserted by a hospital or government worker.
Thrown out of her parent's home in Baltimore, Sadie moved to Philadelphia where Holiday was born. Mother and child eventually settled in a poor section of the city. Holiday’s parents married when she was three, but they soon divorced, leaving her to be raised mostly by her mother and other relatives. At the age of 11, she reported that she had been raped. That claim, combined with her frequent truancy, resulted in her being sent to The House of the Good Shepherd, a Catholic reform school, in 1925. It was only through the assistance of a family friend that Holiday was released two years later. Scarred by these experiences, Holiday moved to New York City with her mother in 1928. In 1929, Sadie discovered a neighbor, Wilbert Rich, in the act of raping Holiday; Rich was sentenced to three months in jail.
According to Holiday's accounts, she was recruited by a brothel, worked as a prostitute and was eventually imprisoned for a short time. It was in Harlem in the early 1930s that she started singing for tips in various night clubs. According to legend, penniless and facing eviction, she sang "Travelin’ All Alone" in a local club and reduced the audience to tears. She later worked at various clubs for tips, ultimately landing at Pod's and Jerry's, a well known Harlem jazz club. Her early work history is hard to verify, though accounts say she was working at a club named Monette's in 1933 when she was discovered by talent scout John Hammond.
Hammond arranged for Holiday to make her recording debut on a 1933 Benny Goodman date, and Goodman was also on hand in 1935, when she continued her recording career with a group led by pianist Teddy Wilson. Their first collaboration included, "What A Little Moonlight Can Do" and "Miss Brown To You," which helped to establish Holiday as a major vocalist. She began recording under her own name a year later, producing a series of extraordinary performances with groups comprising the Swing Era's finest musicians.
Among the musicians who frequently accompanied her was tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who had been a boarder at her mother's house in 1934 and with whom she had a special rapport. Young nicknamed her "Lady Day" and she, in turn, dubbed him "Prez." In the late 1930s, she also had brief stints as a big band vocalist with Count Basie and Artie Shaw. The latter association placed her among the first Black women to work with a White orchestra, an arrangement that went against the temper of the times.
Holiday was recording for Columbia in the late 1930s when she was introduced to "Strange Fruit," a song based on a poem about lynching written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish teacher from the Bronx, N.Y. Meeropol used the pseudonym "Lewis Allen" for the poem, which was set to music and performed at teachers' union meetings. It was eventually heard by Barney Josephson, proprietor of Café Society, an integrated nightclub in Greenwich Village, who then introduced it to Holiday. She performed it at the club in 1939, with some trepidation, fearing possible retaliation. Holiday later said that the imagery in "Strange Fruit" reminded her of her father's death, and that that imagery played a role in her persistence to perform it. In a 1958 interview, she bemoaned the fact that many people did not grasp the song's message: "They'll ask me to 'sing that sexy song about the people swinging'," she said.
When her producers at Columbia found the subject matter too sensitive, Commodore Records' Milt Gabler agreed to record it for his label. That was done in April of 1939 and "Strange Fruit" remained in her repertoire for 20 years. She later recorded it again for Verve Records. While the Commodore release did not get airplay, the controversial song actually sold well, but Gabler attributes that mostly to the record's other side, a song called, "Fine and Mellow" that was a juke box hit.
In addition to owning Commodore, Milt Gabler was an A&R man for Decca Records, and he signed Holiday to the label in 1944. Her first recording for Decca, "Lover Man," was a song written especially for her by Jimmy Davis, Roger "Ram" Ramirez and Jimmy Sherman. Although its lyrics describe a woman who has never known love, its theme—a woman longing for a missing lover—and its refrain struck a chord in wartime America and the record became one of her biggest hits.
Holiday continued to record for Decca until 1950, including sessions with the Duke Ellington and Basie’s orchestras, and two duets with Louis Armstrong. Holiday's Decca recordings featured big bands, and sometimes strings, contrasting her intimate small-group Columbia accompaniments. Some of the songs from her Decca repertoire became signatures, including "Don't Explain" and "Good Morning Heartache." Holiday made one major film appearance, opposite Louis Armstrong in New Orleans in 1947. The musical drama featured Holiday singing with Armstrong and his band and was directed by Arthur Lubin.
Strange and Fruitless
Her personal life was as turbulent as the themes of the songs she sang. Holiday stated that she began using hard drugs in the early 1940s. She married trombonist Jimmy Monroe on August 25, 1941. While still married to Monroe, she took up with trumpeter Joe Guy, her drug dealer, as his common law wife. She finally divorced Monroe in 1947, and also split with Guy. In 1947, she was jailed on drug charges and served eight months at the Alderson Federal Correctional Institution for Women in West Virginia. Her New York City Cabaret Card was subsequently revoked, which kept her from working in clubs there for the remaining 12 years of her life. The exception was when she played at the Ebony Club in 1948, where she opened under the permission of John Levy.
By the 1950s, Holiday's drug abuse, drinking and relationships with abusive men led to her deteriorating health. As evidenced by her later recordings, Holiday's voice coarsened and did not project the vibrancy it once had. However, she had retained—and, perhaps, strengthened—the emotional impact of her delivery.
On March 28, 1952, Holiday married Louis McKay, an opportunistic and unsuccessful pimp. McKay, like most of the men in Holiday’s life, was abusive, but he did try to get her off drugs. They were separated at the time of her death, but McKay had plans to start a chain of Billie Holiday vocal studios, a la the Arthur Murray dance schools. Holiday also had a relationship with author Orson Welles.
A Voice of Distinction
Her late recordings on Verve constitute about one-third of her commercial recorded legacy and are as well remembered as her earlier work for the Columbia, Commodore and Decca labels. In later years, her voice became more fragile but it never lost the edge that had always made it so distinctive. On November 10, 1956, she performed before a packed audience at Carnegie Hall, a major accomplishment for any artist, especially a Black artist during the segregated period in American history. Her performance of "Fine And Mellow" on CBS's The Sound of Jazz program is memorable for her interplay with her long-time friend Lester Young.
Holiday first toured Europe in 1954, as part of a Leonard Feather package that also included Buddy DeFranco and Red Norvo. When she returned almost five years later, she made one of her last television appearances for Granada's "Chelsea at Nine," in London. Her final studio recordings were made for MGM in 1959 with lush backing from Ray Ellis and his Orchestra, who had also accompanied her on Columbia's Lady in Satin album the previous year. The MGM sessions were released posthumously on a self-titled album, later re-titled and re-released as Last Recordings. Her final public appearance, a benefit concert at the Phoenix Theater in New York's Greenwich Village, took place on May 25, 1959. According to the evening's emcees, jazz critic Leonard Feather and TV host Steve Allen, she was only able to make it through two songs, one of which was "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do."
On May 31, 1959, she was taken to Metropolitan Hospital in New York suffering from liver and heart disease. On July 12, she was placed under house arrest at the hospital for possession of drugs, despite evidence suggesting the drugs may have been planted on her. Holiday remained under police guard at the hospital until she died from cirrhosis of the liver on July 17, 1959, at the age of 44. In the final years of her life, she had been progressively swindled out of her earnings, and she died with only $0.70 in the bank and $750 on her. Holiday is interred in Saint Raymond's Cemetery in The Bronx, N.Y.
Her impact on other artists is undeniable and even after her death. In 1972, and in what was surely the most egregious insult to Lady Day's memory, Diana Ross portrayed her in a film that was loosely based on Lady Sings the Blues, the autobiography she co-authored with William Dufty. Although the movie strayed even farther from the true story than the book, it was a commercial success and earned Ross a Best Actress Academy Award nomination. In 1987, Holiday was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 1994, the United States Postal Service introduced a postage stamp of Holiday. She ranked No. 6 on VH1's “100 Greatest Women in Rock n' Roll” list in 1999, and she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. Over the years, there have been many recorded tributes to Holiday, including the song, "Angel of Harlem," a 1988 release by the group U2. Holiday was posthumously inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, which is a special Grammy award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least 25 years old, and that have "qualitative or historical significance.
Although her unique style has never been successfully duplicated, Holiday inspired many singers and continues to be regarded as one of the jazz idiom's most important vocalists. Her distinct delivery made Holiday's performances instantly recognizable throughout her career. Years of abuse eventually altered the texture of her voice and gave it a prepossessing fragility, but the emotion with which she imbued each song remained intact. Her last major recording, a 1958 album entitled Lady in Satin, features the backing of a 40-piece orchestra conducted and arranged by Ray Ellis. He said of the album in 1997: “I would say that the most emotional moment was her listening to the playback of "I'm a Fool to Want You." There were tears in her eyes...After we finished the album I went into the control room and listened to all the takes. I must admit I was unhappy with her performance, but I was just listening musically instead of emotionally. It wasn't until I heard the final mix a few weeks later that I realized how great her performance really was.”
Labels she recorded with:
Columbia Records (1933-1942, 1958)
Commodore Records (1939, 1944)
Decca Records (1944-1950)
Verve Records (1952-1959)
Sources: wikipedia.org; Donald Clarke - Wishing On the Moon, pp 12 and 395-9, 2000; Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon; Stuart Nicholson. Billie Holiday. Northeastern University Press. "Billie Holiday." Black History Month Biographies. 2004. Gale Group Databases. 1 Mar, 2004;1958 Chris Albertson Interview, WHAT-FM, Philadelphia; http://launch.yahoo.com/ar-251457-bio--Billie-Holiday; http://www.grammy.com/Recording_Academy/Awards/Hall_Of_Fame/; http://www.jazzatlincolncenter.org/jazzED/ejhf_web/i_classes.html; Julia Blackburn, With Billie; John Chilton, Billie's Blues: The Billie Holiday Story 1933-1959; Donald Clarke, Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon; Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday; Leslie Gourse, The Billie Holiday Companion: Seven Decades of Commentary; Farah Jasmine Griffin, If You Can't Be Free, Be A Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday; Holiday, Billie and William Dufty, Lady Sings the Blues; Chris Ingham, Billie Holiday; Burnett James, Billie Holiday; Jack Millar, Fine and Mellow: A Discography of Billie Holiday, 1994; Stuart Nicholson, Billie Holiday.
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Wednesday, February 6th 2008 at 3:11PM