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Billie Holiday

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Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday, 1949
Billie Holiday, 1949
Background information
Birth nameEleanora Fagan
Also known asLady Day, Queen of Song
Born(1915-04-07)April 7, 1915
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
OriginHarlem, New York, U.S.
DiedJuly 17, 1959(1959-07-17) (aged 44)
New York City, New York, U.S.
GenresJazz, vocal jazz, jazz blues, torch songs, ballads, swing
Years active1933—1959

Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan; April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959) was an American jazz singer and songwriter. She was also called "Lady Day", a nickname that her friend and musical partner Lester Young gave her. Holiday was a very important influence on jazz and pop singing. The way that she sang was similar to the way jazz musicians played their instruments. She was admired for her very personal and intimate way of singing. Critic John Bush wrote that she "changed the art of American pop vocals forever."[1]

She co-wrote some songs which have become jazz standards, like "God Bless the Child", "Don't Explain", and "Lady Sings the Blues". She also became famous for singing jazz standards written by other people, like "Easy Living" and "Strange Fruit".

Early life[change | change source]

Holiday was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1915, a Roman Catholic. She had a difficult childhood, which affected her life and career. Not much is known about her early life, but there are stories about it in her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, which was published in 1956. Later, it was found out that some parts of this book were wrong.[2]

Billie Holiday at two years old in 1917

Holiday got her pseudonym, or stage name, from Billie Dove, an actress she admired, and Clarence Holiday, the man who was probably her father.[3] At the beginning of her career, she spelled her last name "Halliday", but then changed it back to "Holiday" (they are pronounced the same, 'Hahliday', in American English).

People have never been sure who Holiday's father was. This is because her birth certificate said her father was called Frank DeViese. Some people now think that this was a mistake that somebody made when she was born.[4]

Holiday's mother was called Sadie Fagan. Fagan became pregnant when she was 13 years old. Her parents threw her out of her home in Baltimore, and she went to Philadelphia where her daughter Eleanora (Billie Holiday) was born. Fagan moved back to Baltimore and married Clarence Holiday, who was probably her baby's father, but they later divorced. When she was 10 years old, Holiday often missed school. When she said that she had been raped,[5] she was sent to The House of the Good Shepherd, a Catholic reform school. She was allowed out two years later, with the help of a family friend.[6] Holiday moved to New York City with her mother in 1928. In 1929 Holiday's mother saw a neighbor, Wilbert Rich, raping Holiday. Rich was sentenced to three months in jail. But after her incident as a rape victim she was still constantly raped by drunk men in her neighborhood. She almost got pregnant by a drunk man walking down their street.

Early singing career[change | change source]

Holiday later said that in 1930 she worked as a prostitute in a brothel, and was imprisoned for a short time for solicitation (prostitution). In the 1930s in Harlem, New York City, she started singing for tips in night clubs, and got a job at Pod's and Jerry's, a famous Harlem jazz club. In 1933 she was working at a club called Monette's. She was discovered by a talent scout called John Hammond.[7]

Hammond helped Holiday to record her first songs in November 1933 with Benny Goodman: "Your Mother's Son-In-Law" and "Riffin' the Scotch". In 1935 she recorded more songs with a group led by pianist Teddy Wilson. They recorded "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" and "Miss Brown To You".

Teddy Wilson was signed to Brunswick Records by John Hammond to record pop songs in the new 'swing' style for jukeboxes. They were allowed to improvise the music. Holiday was very good at improvising the melody line to fit the emotions.

Holiday also wrote songs during the 1930s, like "Billie's Blues", "Tell Me More (And Then Some)", "Everything Happens For The Best", "Our Love Is Different", and "Long Gone Blues".

A tenor saxophonist called Lester Young often accompanied Holiday. He had been a boarder at her mother's house in 1934 and she got on well with him. Young gave her a nickname, "Lady Day" and she called him "Prez." She spent three months working at Clark Monroe's Uptown House in New York in 1937. In the late 1930s, she also worked as a big band singer with Count Basie and Artie Shaw. She was one of the first black women to work with a white orchestra (Artie Shaw's).

"Strange Fruit"[change | change source]

In the 1930s, Holiday was recording for Columbia Records. She heard of a song called "Strange Fruit". It was based on a poem about lynching written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx. The poem had been set to music and was performed at teachers' union meetings. It was heard by a night club owner called Barney Josephson and he told Holiday about it. She sang the song at Josephson's club in 1939. At first she was worried that it might make people angry. She later said that the song reminded her of her father's death, and that this was partly why she did not want to perform it at first. In a 1958 interview, she also said that many people did not understand what the song meant: "They'll ask me to sing that sexy song about the people swinging", she said.[8]

The music producers at Columbia Records thought that subject of the song (the lynching of black people) might upset people. A music producer called Milt Gabler said that Holiday could record it for his label called Commodore Records. That was done in April 1939 and Holiday sang "Strange Fruit" over the next twenty years. The song did not get played on the radio but still sold well. Gabler said that this was because the other side of the record was "Fine and Mellow", which was a jukebox hit.[9] Later, she recorded "Strange Fruit" again for Verve.

1944-1950[change | change source]

In 1944, Holiday went to work, still with Milt Gabler, at Decca Records. She was 29 years old. Her first songs for Decca were called "Lover Man" and "No More". "Lover Man" was a song written for her. It is about a woman who has never known love, and it became one of her biggest hits.

Billie Holiday, NYC, ca. February 1947

In November 1944, Holiday recorded three songs, "That Ole Devil Called Love", "Big Stuff", and "Don't Explain". Holiday wrote "Don't Explain" after she caught her husband, Jimmy Monroe, with lipstick on his collar. After that, Holiday didn't record any songs until August 1945. She recorded, "Don't Explain", "Big Stuff", "You Better Go Now", and "What is This Thing Called Love?". In 1946, she recorded songs called "No Good Man" and "Good Morning Heartache", "The Blues Are Brewin", and "Guilty". In February 1947, Holiday recorded two hits, "There Is No Greater Love" and "Deep Song". She also recorded "Solitude" and "Easy Living", songs that she had recorded with Teddy Wilson in the 1930s.

Holiday's next recording was after she came out of prison in 1948. She recorded this time with a vocal group called the Stardusters. She recorded "Weep No More" and "Girls Were Made to Take Care of Boys". She was worried that people wouldn't like the recordings and recorded two more songs without the group, "My Man" and Gershwin's "I Loves You Porgy". These became very popular.

The next year, Billie had more hits. She sang a version of Bessie Smith's, song "T'Ain't Nobody's Business if I Do", "Gimme A Pigfoot (And A Bottle of Beer)", "Do Your Duty", and "Keeps on Rainin'", to her lush "You're My Thrill" and "Crazy He Calls Me". She also recorded a song that she wrote called "Somebody's On My Mind".

In her last recording in 1950, she recorded two songs. Both of them were backed by strings, horns, and a choir. She recorded her own "God Bless the Child" and "This is Heaven to Me".

Movies[change | change source]

In 1947, Holiday was in a film with Louis Armstrong called New Orleans. The musical drama film featured Holiday singing with Armstrong and his band and was directed by Arthur Lubin. Holiday was not pleased that she had to play a maid. In her autobiography she said:

"I thought I was going to play myself in it. I thought I was going to be Billie Holiday doing a couple of songs in a nightclub setting and that would be that. I should have known better. When I saw the script, I did. You just tell one Negro girl who's made movies who didn't play a maid or a whore. I don't know any. I found out I was going to do a little singing, but I was still playing the part of a maid."

Holiday was also in the 1950 Universal-International short film 'Sugar Chile' Robinson, Billie Holiday, Count Basie and His Sextet, where she sang "God Bless the Child" and "Now, Baby or Never".

1947 arrest and comeback[change | change source]

On May 16, 1947, Holiday was arrested for the possession of narcotics and drugs in her New York apartment. On May 27, 1947, she had to go to court. Holiday pleaded guilty (admitted that she had the drugs) and was sentenced to Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia. Holiday said she never "sang a note" at Alderson even though people wanted her to. She was released early (March 16, 1948) because of her good behavior. When she arrived at Newark, everybody was there to welcome her back, including her pianist Bobby Tucker.

Her manager Ed Fishman thought of the idea to have a comeback concert at Carnegie Hall. Holiday was worried at first because she thought that nobody would want her back, but she decided do it. On March 27, 1948, the Carnegie concert was very successful. She did sang songs like Cole Porter's "Night and Day" and "Strange Fruit". The concert was not recorded.

Holiday was arrested again on January 22, 1949, at a hotel in San Francisco.

1950s[change | change source]

Billie Holiday in court in late 1949.
She was charged with the possession of opium, even though it was her boyfriend's.

Holiday said that she began using hard drugs in the early 1940s. She had married trombonist Jimmy Monroe on August 25, 1941. When she was still married to Monroe, she started a romantic relationship with trumpeter Joe Guy, who was also her drug dealer. She lived with him as his wife (called a common law wife) and divorced Monroe in 1947. She also separated from Guy. After of she was arrested and convicted for possessing drugs in 1947, she was not allowed to work in clubs in New York for the rest of her life. The only time she was able to was when she sang at the Ebony Club in 1948, where she had the permission of John Levy.

In the 1950s, Holiday's health became bad, because of her drinking alcohol, using drugs and her relationships with abusive men. Her voice became rough, but some people say that her singing became more emotional.

On March 28, 1952, Holiday married Louis McKay, a man who worked for the Mafia. McKay, like most of the men in her life, was abusive, but he did try to get her to stop using drugs. They later separated.

On November 10, 1956, she performed two concerts before big audiences at Carnegie Hall.

Holiday went on tour Europe for the first time in 1954 with Buddy DeFranco and Red Norvo. When she went back to Europe, almost five years later, she went on television for Granada's Chelsea at Nine, in London. This was one of the last times she was on television. Her last studio recordings were made for MGM in 1959, with Ray Ellis and his Orchestra, who had also accompanied her on Columbia's Lady in Satin album in 1958. The MGM recordings were released after Holiday's death on an album called Last Recordings.

Holiday's autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, was published in 1956. It was ghostwritten by William Dufty, a New York Post writer and editor who was married to Holiday's close friend Maely Dufty. He wrote the book quickly after talking to Holiday in his apartment, as well as using earlier interviewers. His wanted to let Holiday tell her story her way.[10]

Holiday never had any children of her own, but had two godchildren: singer Billie Lorraine Feather, daughter of Leonard Feather, and Bevan Dufty, son of William Dufty.[10]

Death[change | change source]

On May 31, 1959, Holiday was taken to the Metropolitan Hospital in New York. She had liver and heart disease. Police officers were at the door to her room. She was arrested for drug possession as she lay dying and her hospital room was raided by the police.[10] They kept guarding her at the hospital until she died from cirrhosis of the liver on July 17, 1959. In the last years of her life, she had gradually lost her earnings, and she died with $0.70 in the bank and $750 in cash.

Notes[change | change source]

  1. allmusic Billie Holiday > Biography
  2. Donald Clarke - Wishing On the Moon (2000) pp 12 and 395-9, ISBN 0-306-81136-7
  3. "Billie Holiday Biography". The Biography Channel. Archived from the original on 2009-07-12. Retrieved 2009-06-29.
  4. Clarke, Donald (2002). Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon. ISBN 0-306-81136-7.
  5. Stuart Nicholson (1995). Billie Holiday. Northeastern University Press. ISBN 1555533035.
  6. "Billie Holiday biography at Yahoo.com". Archived from the original on 2006-07-12. Retrieved 2009-08-31.
  7. "Billie Holiday." Black History Month Biographies. 2004. Gale Group Databases. Mar 1, 2004
  8. Interview with Chris Albertson over WHAT-FM, Philadelphia
  9. Donald Clarke - "Wishing On the Moon" (2000) pp 169
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 "Billie Holiday's bio, 'Lady Sings the Blues,' may be full of lies, but it gets at jazz great's core". San Francisco Chronicle. 18 September 2006.

References[change | change source]