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Considered by many to be the greatest jazz vocalist of all time, Billie Holiday lived a difficult and hard life. Her singing expressed an incredible depth of emotion that spoke of hard times and injustice. Although her career was short, she left behind a body of work that is still touching people today. Holiday rose to fame in the 1930’s with her unique style that would change modern singing and performance. More than 80 years after her first recording her legacy continues to influence singers and musicians of today. Holiday had a vocal style strongly inspired by jazz artists. She was known for her vocals and improvised skills, which made up for her limited range and lack of musical education. Holiday’s complicated life and unique style made her an icon. She took her pain and channeled it into deep vocal performances that resonated in your soul. Her passionate voice turned any song she sang into her own unique jazz song. Billie Holiday will forever be remembered today for her musical masterpieces, songwriting skills, creativity and views on inequality and justice.

Holiday was born Elenora Fagan on April 7th, 1915, in Philadelphia to a 19-year-girl named Sarah Harris. Holiday endured a difficult childhood in Baltimore. She was told that her father was a talented guitarist and banjo player named Clarence Holiday, although he was an absent father. Her mother would often work as a maid for white woman travelers. Leaving Holiday to be passed around to family and friends, while her mother was working. She was sent to a Catholic reformatory, the House of Good Shepard for Colored Girls, twice. Once for not attending school and again at 11 after she had been raped (O’Malley, 78).

Living in extreme poverty Holiday dropped out of school in the 5th grade. She then started to work for a brothel, running errands. It is here that she discovered the music of Louis Armstrong and her love of the blues. In 1928, at the age of 12, Holiday moved with her mother to Harlem. She later turned to prostitution along with her mother. They would both be arrested for prostitution after a raid in a local brothel (Holiday, William, 98).

Holiday then looks for work as a dancer at a Harlem club. At the age of 14 she started singing in Harlem night clubs for tips. She adopted her father’s surname and took the name Billie after Billie Dove, her favorite actress. Long interested in jazz and the blues, Holiday sang for and impressed the owner of a night club. This led to many other jobs in Harlem’s jazz clubs, and by 1933 she had her first major job. Although, she had had no formal musical training, she had an instinctive sense of musical structure, and with a wealth of experience from listening to jazz and blues, she developed a singing style that was deeply moving and individual (Szwed, 95).

She was only twenty when the well-known jazz producer John Hammond heard her sing. John Hammond reported that she was the greatest singer he had ever heard. Her bluesy vocal style brought a slow and unique quality to the jazz standards that were often upbeat and light. This combination made for a deep and distinctive performance. By slowing her tone with emotional vocals that reset the timing and rhythm, she added a new dimension to jazz singing (Clarke, 116).

Hammond arranged Holiday’s first recording session with Benny Goodman and in 1935 signed her to Brunswick Records to record with Teddy Wilson. By then she had already established her unique style as a jazz singer who improvises rhythm and melody to achieve compelling expression. It was during this time that she met the brilliant tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who became a close friend and musical collaborator. They recorded together for Colombia Records until early 1941, leaving one of the most important recorded legacies in the history of not only jazz, but also of twentieth–century music (Sampayo, Munoz, 133). Many successful songs were recorded, entwining Young’s tenor saxophone with Holiday’s magical voice. Young would be the one to give Holiday the nickname, Lady Day.

After the late 1930’s Holiday and Young would rarely record together. However, till the end they remained soul mates. In 1938 she worked at Café Society, New York’s first integrated night club. It had a major impact on audiences and gave emphasis to the anti-lynching movement’s era. The following year she joined Benny Goodman on a radio broadcast. Two songs of that time are extremely popular. The first ‘Strange Fruit’ is a detailed description of a lynching of a black man in the south. Columbia record company felt that too many people would be offended and refused to record it. Although Holiday insisted on recording it. ‘Strange Fruit’ would become her signature song and was later selected for the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978 (Holiday, William, 207). A small record company, Commodore, finally released Strange Fruit in 1939. It was a big money maker because of the song on the other side, ‘Fine and Mello’, which was a blues song written by Holiday. Another song always associated with Holiday is ‘Gloomy Sunday’, which spoke of such deep misery and despair that it was kept off the radio for a long time (Holiday, William, 218).

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In late 1937 and early 1939 Holiday performed with the Count Basie Orchestra, following that she toured with Artie Shaw and his band, as one of the first black women to perform with an all-white band. She endured many insults and discrimination while on tour, especially in the South. Where restaurants would refuse to serve her. Shaw did his best to defend her and insisted on equal treatment for all in the band. By the late 1930’s and early 1940’s Holiday had become an established artist in the recording industry and the radio (O’Malley, 210).

In 1941, Holiday met and married bad boy James Monroe, a glamorous and violent man whose was a marijuana dealer and pimp. Holiday reached her peak during the 1940’s, and Monroe saw her as a meal ticket, and in return would supply her with drugs like opium. When Monroe was convicted of drug smuggling, Holiday started seeing another man named Joe Guy, a musician who also supplied her with drugs. During the war years opium became scarce and was replaced by heroin, at first Holiday simply used it to get high, but by 1945 she was hopelessly addicted (Clarke, 251).

After her mother’s death, Holiday sank into a deep depression and began drinking and using drugs even more frequently and heavily. Holiday had a deep fear of loneliness, and she became dependent on her male lovers, and was even abused by many of them. Although, at the height of her fame, she never had enough money, given her alcohol and drug problems. In 1947, Holiday and Guy were arrested and charged with receiving and concealing narcotics. Guy was found innocent, but Holiday, whose manager refused to arrange for legal counsel, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year and a day at the federal reformatory for women in Virginia, to which she had requested to be sent. Here she received medical treatment and got clean before she was released on parole. Ten days after she was released, she gave a packed concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Her constant struggle with heroin addiction ravaged her voice, although not her technique (Szwed, 266). However, due to her felony conviction, she was denied the Cabaret Car, which would permit her to perform in New York night clubs where alcohol was served. Holiday was forced to find other venues and tour other cities. Surrounded once more by her old crowd of drug users and dealers, Holiday soon relapsed. A second arrest for drug possession in 1949 ended in her acquittal. During this low point in her career, she would start to receive psychological help and started to see a therapist (Clarke, 297).

Though she was a successful concert performer throughout the 1950’s with two more sold out shows at Carnegie Hall, Holiday’s bad health, along with a string of abusive relationships and ongoing drug and alcohol abuse, caused her voice to deteriorate. Making it sound unnaturally deep and grainy and occasionally it would crack during performances. But her singing was sustained by her individual style and her special way words. Holiday’s dramatic intensity gave the most moving lyrical performances (Holiday, William, 303).

The last years of Holiday’s life were mostly lost to drugs and alcohol, a rare performance with her old friend Lester Young provided a small glimpse of hope. Her relationship with Young had been mysterious even to those closest to her. But at some point, they had a falling out and had not spoken to each other in years. In 1957, they reunited for the last time for a televised performance of ‘Fine and Mellow’. Young would die of alcoholism just two years later (Sampayo, Munoz, 312).

Holiday would only outlive Young by a few months. On May 30th 1959, after months of declining health and a weight of only 95 pounds, Holiday collapsed and was taken to the hospital. There she was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver, cardiac failure, kidney infection and congestion. While at the hospital, Holiday’s nurse discovered a white powder in her Kleenex box. The police and FBI were called and she was arrested for possession. Her comic books, records and record player were taken away, and guards were posted in front of her door. This time Holiday would never be prosecuted, as she would die in that hospital bed just days later. She died nearly penniless, with only $750 that she had taped to her leg and only 70 cents in the bank. On July 17th, 1959, at the very young age of 44, Billie Holiday died (Clarke, 331).

Holiday’s final recordings were met with mixed reactions due to her damaged voice. Her last album, ‘Lady in Satin’, was released in 1958. She won four Grammy Awards. Was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1973. And in 2017 Holiday was included into the National Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame (Sampayo, Munoz, 348).

Holiday was not only known for her deeply emotional voice but also for her unique style of melodies. She endured a very complicated and hard life which she never fully did escape. She helped pave the way for others in jazz and the blues today. Despite her lack of musical training, Holiday’s mysterious syncopations, phrasing, and her dramatic intensity made her the remarkable jazz singer she’s known for today. White gardenias worn in her hair were her trade mark, and according to her autobiography, ‘Lady Sings the Blues’, Holiday states, “Singing songs like ‘The Man I Love’ or ‘Porgy’ is no more work than sitting down and eating Chinese roast duck, and I love roast duck. I’ve loved songs like that”. Holiday’s life was tough, but so was she. She was not only good at what she did, but she loved what she did, and that makes her music just that much better, giving it that deep emotion that is able to reach people’s hearts. Billie Holiday will forever be remembered today for her musical masterpieces, songwriting skills, creativity and views on inequality and justice.

Works Cited

  1. Clarke, Donald. ‘Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon’. London. 2002. Da Capo Press. Print.
  2. Duffy, William, and Holiday, Billie. ‘Lady Sings the Blues’. England. Doubleday. 1956. Print.
  3. Munoz, Jose, and Sampayo, Carlos. ‘Billie Holiday’. New York. NBM Publishing Company. 2017. Print.
  4. O’Malley, Robert. ‘Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday’. London. Da Capo Press. 2000. Print.
  5. Szwed, John. ‘Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth’. New York. Viking Penguin. 2016. Print.

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