Billie Holiday - Biography

In the nearly 50 years since her death in 1959, vocalist Billie Holiday has become a prisoner of her legend – a legend that to some degree she was complicit in creating. She is considered today not simply an inventive, powerful, and even revolutionary musician, but a tortured victim of the jazz life. Today the public is probably less familiar with her music than it is with the lurid depictions of her story – her 1956 autobiography Lady Sings the Blues, a sensationalistic tome ghost-written by tabloid journalist William Dufty, and the hit like-titled 1972 film starring ex-Supremes lead singer Diana Ross, which is from its first frame a grotesquely melodramatic work of the purest fiction.


Better to remember her as her peer Frank Sinatra did in 1958, when he called Holiday “unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years.” As a vocal stylist and improviser, she was without equal in her time. There is much more to Lady Day, as tenor saxophonist Lester Young dubbed her, than the tales of prostitution, sexual and physical abuse, alcoholism, and drug addiction that clouded her career and serve as the bedrock of her myth today.


Yes, there is desolation, pain, and melancholy in much of Holiday’s music. But as critic Martin Williams said, “In a sense, she was an actress, a great natural actress who had learned to draw on her own feelings and convey them with honest directness to a listener. And like a great actress, she did not entirely become what she portrayed, but in some secret way she stood aside from it….”


Holiday was born Eleanora Harris (and was soon known as Eleanora Fagan) on April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia. The famous, shock-inducing opening of her autobiography – “Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was sixteen and I was three” – is not accurate. Her mother, domestic Sadie Harris, never wed the man she always believed to be her father, musician Clarence Holiday. Her father may actually have been waiter Frank DeVeazy. In early life, the illegitimate child assumed the surname of her maternal grandfather Charles Fagan.


Her early life was unstable and touched by violence. She was shuttled between her mother and various relatives in Baltimore. She became such a chronic truant that the Baltimore juvenile court placed her in a Catholic-run home for wayward girls for a year. She left school in the fifth grade. At the age of 11, she was raped by a neighbor, which led to a second stay at the House of Good Shepherd for Colored Girls. By 13, she was working as a domestic in a Baltimore brothel; there she was first exposed to the music of trumpeter-vocalist Louis Armstrong and blues singer Bessie Smith. Armstrong’s sense of syncopation and Smith’s trumpet-like tone and reductive, less-is-more melodic approach would serve as key formative influences.


In late 1928, mother and daughter relocated to New York City’s Harlem district; both were soon working as prostitutes in the house of madame Florence Williams. They were arrested in a May 1929 police sweep; Eleanora Fagan received a six-month workhouse sentence. After her release, she joined her mother in Brooklyn. A neighbor, saxophonist Kenneth Hollon, let her practice singing with him and helped land her first professional job in 1930 or ’31. Seeking a more euphonious stage moniker, she appropriated the first name of silent film star Billie Dove and the last name of the man she believed was her father. Billie Holiday was born.


As (in her words) “a hip kitty, travelin’ light,” Holiday learned her musical trade in the Harlem clubs. Statuesque and buxom beyond her years, the precocious teenage singer worked from joint to joint and hung out, drinking and smoking pot. Some musicians knew she was a unique performer from the start: Saxophonist Benny Carter, who accompanied her in later years, told biographer Stuart Nicholson, “I don’t know if I ever heard anything like that prior to hearing her for the first time, or indeed since.”


One fateful evening in February 1933, John Hammond, a young talent scout for the Brunswick, Vocalion, and Columbia labels, stopped by the speakeasy Covan’s on 132nd Street in Harlem. Hammond had expected to hear singer Monette Moore, who ran the establishment, but was unaware that 17-year-old Billie Holiday was standing in for Moore that night. Hammond – who would later sign such talents as Count Basie, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, and Bruce Springsteen -- recalled, “I just was absolutely overwhelmed.” With his first impression bolstered by the high opinion of his friend Mildred Bailey, then one of jazz’s reigning vocalists, he began to agitate with his label bosses on the young singer’s behalf.


Holiday cut her first recording sessions in November 1933 as a featured vocalist with clarinetist Benny Goodman, then a rising star of swing (and for a time one of Holiday’s many musician paramours). Her bluesy work on “Your Mother’s Son-in-Law” and “Riffin’ the Scotch” reflects her large debt to Bessie Smith and offers mere hints of her own style.


Over the next two years, Holiday continued to hone her craft at club dates; audiences and the black press were at first critical of her “draggy,” behind-the-beat singing. In late 1934, she made her debut at Harlem’s prestigious Apollo Theatre. Shortly thereafter, Hammond used his influence with management and publishing giant Irving Mills to secure her an appearance in a short subject, filmed in Queens, starring Mills’ client Duke Ellington and his band. In Symphony in Black, foreshadowing her public image to come, she is knocked to the ground by her cheating boyfriend, and sings the lament “Blues (Saddest Tale).”


In mid-1935, Hammond finally sold Brunswick on producing a series of releases featuring pianist Teddy Wilson, with Holiday as vocalist. The first session, held July 2, featured a top-flight front line of Benny Goodman, tenor saxophonist Ben Webster (a then-current flame of Holiday’s), and trumpeter Roy Eldridge. The date, which produced the classics “What a Little Moonlight Will Do” and “I Wished On the Moon,” set the template for Holiday’s six-year stint for Brunswick and Vocalion, during which she would record 158 sides, some under Wilson’s name, some under her own.


These nimble dates with Wilson are among the peaks of small-group swing. Holiday functioned as a member of the band, usually taking one vocal chorus among the instrumental solos. She developed an immediately identifiable, individualistic style featuring a pared-down legato melodic delivery and a keen rhythmic sense that found her sprinting across bar lines during up-tempo tunes and affecting a deliberately reticent rhythmic attack on ballads. She was consistently surrounded with the best jazzmen of the era; her most notable accompanist, from 1937-41, was Lester Young, the Kansas City-bred tenor saxophonist who became the star of Count Basie’s orchestra. Young’s light, sensuous obligatos sublimely complemented Holiday’s horn-like vocals. The two musicians enjoyed a long, deep platonic friendship that lasted, with a period of estrangement, until the end of their lives; he gave her the regal handle “Lady Day,” while she tagged him “Prez,” for “The President.”


Holiday’s sides with Wilson display a vivacious, lively aspect of her musical personality that waned in the early ‘40s as she turned increasingly to slower, darker material. Her distinctive style transformed even the most banal Tin Pan Alley tunes she essayed – see “Miss Brown to You,” “Me, Myself and I,” or “A Sailboat in the Moonlight” for superior examples. But she also plumbed the finest work of Cole Porter (“Night and Day”) and George and Ira Gershwin (“The Man I Love”), among others, paving the way for Sinatra and other interpreters of the so-called Great American Songbook to come. By the end of her Columbia tenure, when she was recording “I Cover the Waterfront,” “Love Me or Leave Me,” “Gloomy Sunday,” and her own “God Bless the Child,” Holiday was beginning to be known as jazz singing’s great tragedienne.


As her celebrity as a recording artist grew, Holiday gained attention as the lead vocalist in the Count Basie Orchestra (a role unfortunately never captured in the studio); the association ended in early 1938 after a dispute over money. She moved on to work with clarinetist Artie Shaw’s all-white big band; that job – captured on a lone July 1938 side, “Any Old Time,” recorded the same day as Shaw’s massive hit “Begin the Beguine” -- also proved curt, cut short by the prevailing racial prejudices and Jim Crow practices of the day.


Holiday’s true leap into the public consciousness began in December 1938 with an engagement at an uptown club, booked under Hammond’s aegis, catering to wealthy white intelligentsia and left-wingers. Her run at Barney Josephson’s Café Society was distinguished by the introduction of a song, “Strange Fruit,” by poet Lewis Allen. A stark, haunting ballad about a Southern lynching, it created a sensation. Columbia refused to let her record it, so Holiday approached Milt Gabler, who operated the Commodore Record Shop and a small independent label. Cut in April 1939 with a small combo led by trumpeter Frankie Newton, “Strange Fruit” became one of Holiday’s signature songs; it also led to a brief but musically rewarding stay at Commodore after the expiration of her Columbia contract in 1941.


At around this time, Holiday became entangled with Jimmy Monroe, brother of Clark Monroe, operator of the noted Harlem nightspot that bore his name. Jimmy Monroe was a drug pusher and pimp, and the singer’s harsh, co-dependent marriage to him was the model for her future relationships. By the mid-‘40s, Holiday had left Monroe and taken up with trumpeter and drug addict Joe Guy; it was at this point that Lady Day graduated from alcohol and marijuana to heroin, then flooding the 52nd Street jazz clubs. Her escalating addiction would nearly derail her career in the years that followed.


In 1944, Milt Gabler joined the major Decca Records as an executive, and he brought Holiday to the label with an eye towards recording pop hits. Her first session introduced the string-bedecked ballad “Lover Man”; that hit launched a run of pain-wracked numbers, including “Don’t Explain” and “My Man,” that further defined her musical profile.


In 1946, her career received another boost with an appearance in the Hollywood feature New Orleans, in which she was accompanied by her early idol and influence Louis Armstrong. Then disaster struck: In May 1947, Holiday and Guy were arrested for heroin possession in Philadelphia. She was quickly sentenced to a year and a day in a federal reformatory in Alderston, Virginia. She was paroled in March 1948; an appearance at Carnegie Hall followed her release by days.


The jail term had a dire effect on her career: Her drug conviction made it impossible for her to get a New York City cabaret card, thus barring her from the clubs where she made her living. For the remainder of her career, she would only appear on concert stages there, and she was condemned to endless tour dates. A second drug bust followed in San Francisco in January 1949; though she escaped jail on those charges, Holiday was now viewed by the music industry as damaged goods, and she became a subject of morbid fascination in the tabloid press of the day.


Saddled with exploitative manager-lover John Levy and beginning to drink heavily in an attempt to reduce her heroin use, Holiday had an unproductive stay at the R&B label Aladdin Records in 1951. Promoter and label entrepreneur Norman Granz, who had booked her on his touring Jazz at the Philharmonic shows, came to her rescue in 1952 and signed her to his fledgling imprint Clef (later Verve).


She would remain with Granz until nearly the end of her life. His sessions mated her with the finest players around: Benny Carter, Ben Webster, trumpeters Harry “Sweets” Edison and Charlie Shavers, pianists Oscar Peterson and Jimmy Rowles, guitarist Barney Kessel. Although Granz attempted to nudge Holiday out of her long-standing repertoire and prod her into up-tempo material, many of her Verve sessions find her working at ballad tempos and probing the downbeat, sometimes lacerating material that had become her stock-in-trade. But the sessions are free of self-pity and frequently twinkle with subdued irony; though Holiday’s voice coarsened and her control withered as the ‘50s progressed, she still sported enough technique to touch the emotional core of the songs she sang.


For most of the ‘50s, Holiday was involved with Louis McKay, whom she had first dated as a teenager. He was apparently a far cry from the heroic, supportive figure portrayed by actor Billy Dee Williams in the 1972 biopic. Like her other lovers, McKay – who married Holiday in March 1957, after a long-pending divorce from Monroe was finalized – lived off Holiday’s ever-decreasing earnings, and even bought a Chicago club in his name with her money. Though he always claimed he had tried to wean her off drugs, he was arrested with her in February 1956 after Philadelphia police uncovered heroin, cocaine, and syringes in their hotel room.


Holiday’s last years were marked by neglect and steep physical decline. The 1956 publication of Lady Sings the Blues, in which New York Post reporter Dufty emphasized the most sordid aspects of her life in an attempt to attract the interest of Hollywood, burnished her image as a hard-living, hard-luck jazz casualty as it played fast and loose with some facts. In her star-studded appearance on the December 1957 TV special Seven Lively Arts: The Sound of Jazz, she performed her blues “Fine and Mellow,” drawn and visibly very high, backed by Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, and baritonist Gerry Mulligan. That performance led to a controversial one-off 1958 album for Columbia, Lady in Satin; the string-laden LP, arranged by Ray Ellis, comprised 11 misery-soaked numbers sung in a wobbly yet nonetheless moving rasp. Save a posthumously released album cut with Ellis for MGM, it proved to be Lady Day’s recorded farewell.


Deep in the throes of alcoholism and weakened by drug abuse, worn out from constant touring, virtually penniless and buried in debt, and separated from McKay, Holiday wasted away in a small New York apartment, with her pet Chihuahua her only companion. On May 30, 1959 – two-and-a-half months after the death of her beloved friend and colleague Lester Young – she collapsed and was admitted to a New York hospital on a life-or-death basis. On June 11, heroin was discovered in her room, where she was arrested and fingerprinted. Only death forestalled further woes for Lady Day. She succumbed to cardiac failure brought on by to liver problems on July 17, 1959.


Holiday was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an early influence in 2000. Many view her as the ultimate jazz martyr – a falsehood at best. She led a difficult, tumultuous life, to be sure, but it is her art that should impel the listener’s interest, though her art and her life are inextricable from one another. As Holiday herself said at a 1955 rehearsal that was recorded and preserved, “When I sing a song it’s got to mean something to me, something I’ve had to live. Otherwise I can’t sing.” She turned the truth of her experience into brilliant, affecting song, and in that alchemy abides her genius.  

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