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Billie Holiday was an African American jazz singer that was born on April 7, 1915, in Philadelphia as Eleanora Fagen. She emerged as a popular jazz musician in the 1930’s and is seen as a jazz artist of the swing era. Her most popular records are ‘Strange Fruit’, ‘Fine and Mellow’, ‘The Man I Love’, ‘Billie’s Blues’, ‘God Bless the Child’, and ‘I Wished on the Moon’.

Holiday was the daughter of unwed teenage couple Sarah Fagan and Clarence Holiday, but not long after she was born her father left to become a jazz banjo player and guitarist. She grew up in Baltimore and had a very difficult childhood as she was primarily raised by her aunt’s mother-in-law and suffered from her mother’s constant absences.

Holiday skipped school, and her truancy resulted in her being brought into juvenile court on January 5, 1925, when she was nine years old. She was sent to the House of the Good Shepherd, a Catholic reform school, and after nine months in care, she was put back into the custody of her mother. She dropped out of school at 11.

Around the age of 12, Holiday found a job in a brothel, scrubbing marble steps and kitchen and bathroom floors of neighborhood homes. Around this time, she first heard the records of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. In 1929, Holiday moved with her mother to Harlem. In New York, Holiday’s mother became a prostitute at their landlady’s brothel, and Holiday became a victim of sexual trafficking. They were both sent to prison for this the same year.

After being released, Holiday started singing in nightclubs in Harlem. She created her professional pseudonym from Billie Dove, an actress she admired, and Clarence Holiday, her father. She started performing with tenor saxophone player, Kenneth Hollan, and they worked together from 1929 to 1931, performing at clubs such as the Grey Dawn, Pod’s and Jerry’s on 133rd Street, and the Brooklyn Elks’ Club. Benny Goodman was even said to have remembered hearing Holiday in 1931 at the Bright Spot. As her reputation grew, she played in many clubs, including Mexico’s and the Alhambra Bar and Grill, where she met Charles Linton, a vocalist who later worked with Chick Webb. During this 1time, she also reconnected with her father, who was playing in Fletcher Henderson’s band.

In 1932, when she was 17 years old, Holiday replaced the singer Monette Moore at Covan’s, a club on West 132nd Street. Producer John Hammond, who enjoyed Moore’s singing and had come to see her perform, first heard Holiday there in early 1933. Hammond arranged for Holiday to make her first recording, at age 18, in November 1933, with Benny Goodman. She recorded two songs, ‘Your Mother’s Son-In-Law’ and ‘Riffin’ the Scotch’, and the second ended up becoming her first hit. ‘Your Mother’s Son-In-Law’ sold 300 copies, but ‘Riffin’ the Scotch’, released on November 11, sold 5,000 copies. Hammond was very impressed by Holiday’s singing style and even said: “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”. Hammond compared Holiday favorably to Armstrong and said she had a good sense of lyric content, especially for someone her age.

In 1935, Holiday was signed to Brunswick by Hammond to record with pianist Teddy Wilson in the swing style for the growing jukebox trade at the time. Holiday’s improvisation of melody to fit the emotion was said to be revolutionary. Their first collaboration together included ‘What a Little Moonlight Can Do’ and ‘Miss Brown to You’. ‘What a Little Moonlight Can Do’ is considered to be her ‘claim to fame’. A year later, she began recording under her own name a for Vocalion in sessions produced by Hammond and Bernie Hanighen. Another musician who frequently accompanied Holiday was tenor saxophonist Lester Young. Young nicknamed her ‘Lady Day’, and she called him ‘Prez’.

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In late 1937, Holiday worked as a big-band vocalist with Count Basie and they performed in many night clubs in various larger cities. Holiday was able to choose the songs she sang, and this developed her persona of a woman ‘unlucky in love’. By February of the same year, Holiday was no longer singing for Basie. Various reasons have been given for her firing. Jimmy Rushing, Basie’s male vocalist, called her unprofessional. According to All Music Guide, Holiday was fired for being ‘temperamental and unreliable’. Holiday was hired by Artie Shaw a month after being fired from the Count Basie band. This association made her one of the first black women to work with a white orchestra, which was seen as unusual at the time. In situations where there was a lot of racial tension, which occurred often when they were touring the South, Shaw was said to stick up for his vocalist. She ended up leaving the band because she was exhausted of all the issues that she faced being an African American in a white band.

Holiday said her father was denied medical treatment for a fatal lung disorder because of racial prejudice, and that singing ‘Strange Fruit’, a song written for her to perform, reminded her of the incident. In her autobiography she wrote: “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”. The song was recorded by Commodore Records in 1939. ‘Strange Fruit’ remained in her repertoire for twenty years and became her biggest selling record. With Arthur Herzog, Jr., a pianist, she wrote a song based on the lyric, ‘God Bless the Child’, and it became Holiday’s overall most popular and most covered record. It reached number 25 on the charts in 1941 and was third in Billboard’s songs of the year, selling over a million records. In 1976, the song was actually added to the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Holiday married James Monroe in 1941. While she was already known to be a drinker, Holiday also picked up her new husband’s habit of smoking opium. They later divorced but Holiday’s problems with substance abuse continued as she later formed a relationship with her drug dealer Joe Guy, who was a trumpeter. Over the next few years, she gained a lot more popularity and starred in a major film with Louis Armstrong and Woody Herman. Around this time, it also became apparent that Holiday was struggling with a drug problem, as she was said to spend most of the money she made performing on heroin, which Guy had introduced her to. On May 16, 1947, Holiday was arrested for possession of narcotics in her New York apartment. She was sentenced to Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia and this drug conviction caused her to lose her New York City Cabaret Card; so afterwards, she performed in concert venues and theaters as she couldn’t perform anywhere that sold alcohol.

By the 1950s, Holiday’s drug abuse, drinking, and relationships with abusive men caused her health to deteriorate. Her later recordings showed the effects of her declining health on her voice, as it grew coarser and no longer possessed its former vibrancy. While her drug abuse did make a toll on her voice, Holiday continued to tour and record. She began recording for Norman Granz, the owner of several small jazz labels, in 1952, and two years later, she had a successful tour of Europe.

By early 1959, Holiday was diagnosed with cirrhosis. She stopped drinking for a while due to her doctor’s orders, but relapsed not long after. On May 31, 1959, Holiday was taken to Metropolitan Hospital in New York for treatment for liver and heart disease. She was arrested and handcuffed for drug possession by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, as while in the hospital, her hospital room was raided, and she was placed under police guard. She died at 3:10 a.m. on July 17 at the age of 44, of pulmonary edema and heart failure caused by liver cirrhosis.

As a whole, Holiday’s delivery made her performances distinguishable and extremely popular throughout her career. Her use of improvisation was said to compensate for her lack of musical education. More than 3,000 people attended her funeral held in St. Paul the Apostle Roman Catholic Church on July 21, 1959. Well-known people in jazz such as Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Tony Scott, Buddy Rogers and John Hammond were also present.

Holiday has been an influence on many other performers over the years who have followed in her footsteps. She was and still is considered to be one of the best jazz vocalists of all time. In 1961 she was voted into the Down Beat Hall of Fame, and soon afterwards Columbia re-released nearly a hundred of her early records. Furthermore, her autobiography was made into a film in 1972 named ‘Lady Sings the Blues’, and singer Diana Ross played the role of Holiday, which helped renew interest in Holiday’s recordings and won a Golden Globe. In 2000, Billie Holiday was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with Diana Ross handling the honors. Her posthumous awards also include being inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the ASCAP Jazz Wall of Fame.

Overall, Billie Holiday was known to be a very passionate and complex person. She is seen as one of the most famous and most powerful jazz singers of all time, and has influenced many singers since her time.

References

  1. BBC Four: Billie Holiday; Sensational Lady. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ND8sg5JiaQc
  2. “Billie Holiday Bio”. The Official Website of Billie Holiday, http://billieholiday.com/bio/
  3. “Billie Holiday”. Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 29 June 2019, http://biography.com/musician/billie-holiday
  4. Billie Holiday Documentary – ‘Reputations’. https://youtu.be/CG_cxm_19OE
  5. Billie Holiday Documentary, Toby Bryan/Multiprises and Taurus Film, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mjKhytWmfbY
  6. The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Billie Holiday”. Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 13 July 2019, http://britannica.com/biography/Billie-Holiday
  7. Havers, Richard. “Billie Holiday: A Complex Woman, A Jazz Legend: UDiscover”. UDiscover Music, 16 July 2019, http://udiscovermusic.com/stories/billie-holiday-a-complex-woman/

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