Billie Holiday died on July 17, 1959 but she lives on in her recordings. A jazz singer who is no longer with us, she still boasts a fan base of faithful followers, as well as acquiring new converts every day. If you are a jazz fan you are most likely smitten with "Lady Day" as she was nicknamed by saxophonist Lester Young.
Vocal Styling Influence
Born Eleanora Fagan April 7th, 1915, to Sarah Julie "Sadie" Fagan and Clarence Holiday, her parents never married or lived together. Shortly after her birth, her father left her and her mother to pursue a career as a jazz guitarist.
Lost Educational Opportunities
Her childhood was sketchy to say the least; for much of the first ten years of her life, she was left with her older, married half-sister Eva Miller while her mother worked jobs that took her away for long intervals. Many times Miller's mother-in-law, Martha, was the caretaker for periods of time. As Eleanora grew up, she began skipping school and she was brought before Juvenile Court at the tender age of 9 for truancy. She was sent to a Catholic reform school and paroled on October 23, 1925 to her mother. Sadie Fagan opened a restaurant know as the East Side Grill, and Holiday began working there. She quit attending school by the age of 11.
Eleanora would become the first jazz singer to use the instrumental sounds of music in her vocal styling but that was not yet to come. In October of 1929, Eleanora began singing in a few local nightclubs. She took the name "Billie" from an actress she liked named Billie Dove. At first, she used the last name "Halliday" which was her father's birth name, but later changed it to Holiday, like his performing name, and Billie Holiday the songstress extraordinaire was born.
In 1932, while she replaced Monette Moore at a club called Covan's, producer John Hammond heard her there. He had come to hear Monette, but was impressed with Holiday enough that he arranged for a recording stint with Benny Goodman, where she recorded two songs: "Your Mother's Son-in-law," and "Riffin' The Scotch." "Son-in-law" sold only 300 records, but "Riffin'" sold 5,000 and became her first hit. Her method of using the instrumental sounds as part of her singing proved to be a strong influence on the genre. Hammond was impressed with her, saying:
"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."
She went on to sign with Brunswick Records, but during the time with them she was never paid royalties from the record sales, merely given a flat fee. Her recording of "I Cried For You" on that label sold 15,000 records, a big hit for the company in the days of successful records selling 3 or 4 thousand.
In 1937-1938 she worked with Count Basie and Artie Shaw. Her time with Basie was limited; she was fired before long. Some say it was because she was too demanding about how she wanted to sound. Basie was known to say: "When she rehearsed with the band, it was really just a matter of getting her tunes like she wanted them, because she knew how she wanted to sound and you couldn't tell her what to do." Basie's male vocalist simply said she was unprofessional. In any event, Holiday's complaints were the low pay, harsh working conditions, and the attempts by others to change her style and the types of songs she preferred to sing.
Working For Artie Shaw
When she was hired by Artie Shaw a month after being fired by Basie, she was one of the first black women to work with a white orchestra. Because of this, she was subjected to many instances of racist behavior as the band toured the south. Shaw stood up for her in several situations but in November of 1938, she was asked to use the service elevator at the hotel where they performed, instead of the passenger elevator, because white patrons complained. This was pretty much the straw that broke the camel's back. She left the band shortly after the incident.
While Holiday was recording for Columbia in the late 1930s, she discovered the poem "Strange Fruit," by a Jewish school teacher, Abel Meeropol. He wrote the poem under the pseudonym of Lewis Allen and it was set to music and performed at teacher's union meetings. In spite of her fear of reprisal for its symbolism, she performed it in a Greenwich Village integrated club. The song went on to become solidly identified with its singer, her style and the dangers faced by African-Americans. After "Strange Fruit" she became more popular than ever. In her autobiography "Lady Sings the Blues," she relates the story that her father, Clarence Holiday was denied treatment for a fatal lung condition due to prejudice and says,
"It reminds me of how Pop died, but I have to keep singing it, not only because people ask for it, but because twenty years after Pop died the things that killed him are still happening in the South."
"God Bless The Child"
Another Lady Day favorite is "God Bless the Child," and here's the story of how that song came to be: Her mother, Sadie, opened a restaurant using money from her daughter's earnings. She spent quite a lot on gambling with the members of the Count Basie band, and relied on her daughter's money to keep the restaurant afloat. When Holiday fell on her own hard times, and went to ask her mother for money, she was refused. Angry, Holiday stormed out yelling, "God bless the child that's got his own!" Later, collaborating with pianist Arthur Herzog, Jr, she wrote the song "God Bless The Child."
Holiday played a role in the movie "New Orleans" in 1946, opposite Louis Armstrong and Woody Herman, two jazz greats. But Holiday's and Armstrong's parts were downplayed and many scenes wound up on the cutting room floor because of the racism of the times.
Addictions and Arrests
By this time Holiday was spending almost everything she earned on her addictions: heroin and alcohol. These things created a problem during filming and her lover, Joe Guy was discovered slipping her a supply of heroin and banned from the set. On May 16, 1947, she was arrested for the possession of narcotics in her New York apartment, and jailed. Suffering from the ravages of withdrawal, sick and dehydrated, she pleaded guilty and asked to be sent to a hospital. Instead she was sent to Federal Prison.
She was again arrested for narcotics in her hotel room in San Francisco, on January 22, 1949. She confessed she'd been using narcotics since the early 1940s and that Joe Guy was her supplier.
Holiday's Cabaret Club Card, needed to perform in New York City's clubs, was revoked because of the 1947 conviction. She was no longer allowed to work wherever alcohol was sold, for the remaining 12 years of her life. This severely limited her ability to earn a living. By the 1950s her voice was distinctly impaired, without the vibrancy it once held.
However, she rallied and managed to uphold an obligation to perform at Carnegie Hall on November 10, 1956. Both shows were sold out, quite an accomplishment for any artist, but especially for a little African-American girl who grew up with nothing and came so far.
An Astute Observation
Gilbert Millstein of the New York Times wrote the liner notes for the program, and narrated the performance. Later, he wrote of Billie Holiday:
"It was evident, even then, that Miss Holiday was ill. I had known her casually over the years and I was shocked at her physical weakness. Her rehearsal had been desultory; her voice sounded tinny and trailed off; her body sagged tiredly. But I will not forget the metamorphosis that night. The lights went down, the musicians began to play and the narration began. Miss Holiday stepped from between the curtains, into the white spotlight awaiting her, wearing a white evening gown and white gardenias in her black hair. She was erect and beautiful; poised and smiling. And when the first section of narration was ended, she sang – with strength undiminished – with all of the art that was hers. I was very much moved. In the darkness, my face burned and my eyes. I recall only one thing. I smiled."
Lady Day At Rest At Last
On May 31, 1959 Billie Holiday was admitted to the Metropolitan Hotel in New York City. While she lay dying, she was put under arrest and handcuffed for the possession of narcotics and her hospital room was searched and guarded. She received last rites of the Catholic faith on July 15 and died two days later from pulmonary edema and heart failure caused by cirrhosis of the liver. In her later years, she had been swindled out of money in too many ways to count, and when she died she had 70 cents in the bank and $720 on her that she'd received for a recent fee. Her funeral mass was at Church of St. Paul the Apostle in New York on July 21, 1959, with burial St. Raymond's Cemetery.
Billie Holiday was a singer unequaled all these years for her sheer natural vocal talent. She never had vocal lessons, she was never taught how to present herself the best, she just ... was. No, she wasn't perfect, and yes she'd have lived longer if she hadn't abused alcohol and drugs, but she was, in all things, honest. She never pretended to be more than she was, but always aspired to be better. RIP Lady Day, you'll always be remembered by those who know and love you.
Below you will find albums of her music for your enjoyment. I've also included her autobiography, "Lady Sings the Blues," for your reading pleasure, available in both hardcover and kindle editions.