HOLIDAY, BILLIE (Eleanora Fagan, Lady Day) (1915–1959) Singer
Billie Holiday was arguably the most infiuential jazz singer of her time, although her genius has often been overshadowed by her difficult and tragic personal life. Little is known for certain about her early years. Given the name Eleanora, she was born probably in Philadelphia to Sadie Fagan, who was then 13 and unmarried. Her 15 year-old father, Clarence Holiday, soon left to pursue a career as a jazz guitarist. When Eleanor was still an infant, Sadie moved to Baltimore, where her family lived. To find work, she soon set off for New York City, leaving Eleanor in the care of relatives. Holiday later alleged that her family beat her and that at 10 she was the victim of rape. At about the same time, she was sent to live in a reformatory because of her chronic truancy from school.
When she left the institution, Eleanora drifted into Baltimore’s underworld, becoming a prostitute at 12. At the brothel where she worked, she was introduced to the music of BESSIE SMITH and Louis Armstrong, both of whom would have a great infiuence over her development as an artist. By about 1927, she traveled to New York, where she was reunited with Sadie. Working as a prostitute, maid, and waitress, she struggled to make a living for herself and her mother. By the early 1930s, she was regularly finding jobs singing in small clubs and speakeasies. For her performances, she adopted the name Billie Holiday, taking the first name of her favorite screen star, Billie Dove, and the last name of her father. While singing at Monette’s, a nightclub in Harlem, she was discovered by producer John Hammond. Although her voice was not strong and her range was narrow, he was immediately taken by the young singer’s style. He later remembered that in her he “heard something that wascompletely new and fresh.”
After writing an influential rave about her work in Melody Maker magazine, Hammond signed her to Columbia Records and arranged for her to make her first recordings with Benny Goodman in 1933. Two years later, the producer had more success by pairing Holiday with pianist Teddy Wilson. Her records with Wilson of such songs as “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” and “Easy Living” were both creative and commercial triumphs. Holiday’s reputation on the club circuit was also on the rise. She became known for her fiawless phrasing and expressive, unique interpretation of many standard songs. She often lent weight to light, sentimental tunes about love by investing them with irony or despair. Holiday also developed an uncanny ability to use her voice like an instrument, playing it skillfully to meet the needs of the song. She once explained, “I don’t think I’m singing. I feel like I’m playing a horn. I try to improvise . . . like Louis Armstrong or someone else I admire.”
Her talents brought her to the attention of Count Basie and Artie Shaw, who hired her to sing with their orchestras. While working with Shaw’s band, she was one of the few African-American singers backed by white musicians. The situation led to a series of humiliations for Holiday, as she was met on the road with racial slurs and discriminatory policies. By 1938 Holiday had decided she preferred performing as a solo act. She soon emerged as a star while singing regularly at Cafe Society, a renowned club in New York’s Greenwich Village that catered to a sophisticated, interracial audience. There she established herself as a dramatic singer through her rendition of “Strange Fruit,” a controversial, and powerful song about southern lynchings. She also became known for “God Bless the Child,” her own classic song about taking care of oneself during hard times.
Holiday developed an important working relationship with tenor saxophonist Lester Young, whom she had first met when they both worked with Count Basie. Devoted friends, their musical partnership resulted in several memorable recordings, including “Mean to Me.” In admiration of Holiday, Young called her “Lady Day,” a nickname also adopted by her fans. In return, she referred to Young as “Prez.” By the early 1940s, Holiday’s professional life career was soaring, but her personal life was in turmoil. In 1941 she wed nightclub manager Jimmy Monroe, but their marriage was short-lived. Still, it lasted long enough for Holiday to become addicted to heroin, which Monroe had introduced her to. Soon she was spending much of the $1,000 she earned weekly on the drug. Her fortunes were further depleted when in 1945 she married trumpeter Joe Guy and, together, they formed their own band. Their unsuccessful tours proved an enormous financial drain. She had better luck with a series of recordings she made with Decca Records beginning in 1946. Backed by strings in slick arrangements, Holiday displayed a stronger voice than that heard in her earlier records. Also to further her profile, she appeared in New Orleans (1947), a movie about the city’s music scene, in which she performed “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans.” Holiday, however, was so dispirited by being cast as a maid that she never made another film.
In 1947 Holiday entered a clinic, hoping to free herself from her growing drug habit. Alerted to her heroin use by her hospital stay, federal agents arrested her on a narcotics charge soon after she left the clinic. In an interview with Down Beat magazine, Holiday observed the irony of the timing of her arrest: “Just when things were going to be so big and I was trying so hard to straighten myself out. Funny, isn’t itfi” At the height of her career, she was sentenced to nine months in a West Virginia reformatory.
Ten days after her release, Holiday was cheered by a sold-out crowd at a concert at Carnegie Hall. The triumph lessened the blow of losing her cabaret card, which allowed her to sing in New York clubs, because of her felony conviction. She had to confine her appearances to theaters and concert halls until John Levy, manager of the Ebony Club, illegally hired her, while the police looked the other way. Involved romantically with the volatile Levy, Holiday narrowly evaded another jail sentence in 1948 when both were arrested for opium possession. The following year, the two were married, though she soon left Levy for Louis McKay, whom she wed in 1956.
In 1952, Holiday began recording for Verve Records. These late recordings reveal that years of drug and alcohol abuse had taken a toll on her singing talents. Yet, when she was singing well, her voice was richer than before. In the Verve recordings, Holiday also showed an undiminished interest in trying new arrangements and new interpretations of old standards. She claimed that she was unable to sing the same song the same way twice, once explaining, “I just can’t do it. I can’t even copy me.” Late in her career, Holiday also achieved a lifelong goal of performing in Europe. A 1954 tour took her to Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Switzerland, and England, where she played to an audience of 6,000 at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
Such successes did nothing, however, to stop her physical deterioration. Arrested again in 1956, Holiday was permitted to enter a rehabilitation facility, where she conquered her heroin addiction. However, she continued to drink heavily. At her last performance, on May 25, 1959, she had to be led off the stage after two songs. Devastated by the death of Lester Young months earlier, Holiday collapsed on Memorial Day and was rushed to a New York hospital. She emerged from a coma, but her body, ravaged from years of abuse, had difficulty recovering. Adding to her pain, the police raided her hospital room and arrested her once again for narcotics possession. Holiday was still under house arrest when she died in the hospital on July 17, 1959. She was 44 years old.
While desperate for money, Holiday had written her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues (1956), with New York Post reporter William Dufty. The book, and the 1972 film starring DIANA ROSS based on it, focused on her impoverished childhood, the racial discrimination she encountered, and her troubles with men and drugs. They sadly helped to foster an image of Holiday that clouded the one aspect of her life that made her exceptional: the unadulterated and contagious joy she had for singing.
Holiday recorded extensively for four labels: Columbia Records, issued on its subsidiary labels Brunswick Records, Vocalion Records, and OKeh Records, from 1933 through 1942, and the label proper in 1958; Commodore Records in 1939 and 1944; Decca Records from 1944 through 1950; and Verve Records, also on its earlier imprint Clef Records, from 1952 through 1958. Many of Holiday's recordings appeared on 78 rpm records prior to the long-playing vinyl record era, and only Clef, Verve, and Columbia issued Holiday albums in the 1950s during her lifetime that were not compilations of previously released material. Many compilations have been issued since her death; comprehensive box sets and a selection of live recordings are listed below.
Select studio albums
* 1958: Lady in Satin (Columbia CL 1157)
* 1958: All or Nothing at All (Verve MGV 8329)
* 1957: Songs for Distingué Lovers (Verve MGV 8257)
* 1957: Body and Soul (Verve MGV 8197)
* 1956: Lady Sings the Blues (Verve MGC 721)
* 1953: An Evening with Billie Holiday (Clef MGC 14)
* 1952: Billie Holiday Sings (Clef MGC 118), reissued as Solitude (Clef MGC 690; Verve MGV 8074, 1956)
* 1999: A Midsummer Night's Jazz at Stratford '57 (bootleg BJH 208)
* 1998: Summer of '49 (Bandstand 1511)
* 1991: Lady Day: The Storyville Concerts (Vols. 1 and 2) (Jazz Door 1215)
* 1991: The Complete 1951 Storyville Club Sessions with Stan Getz (bootleg FSRCD 151)
* 1988: At Monterey 1958 (bootleg BHK 50701)
* 1957: Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday at Newport (Verve MGV 8234)
* 2001: Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933–1944 (Columbia Legacy CXK85470)
* 1997: The Complete Commodore Recordings (GRP 401)
* 1993: The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve 1945-1959 (Polygram 517658)
* 1991: The Complete Decca Recordings (GRP 601)
Gourse, Leslie, ed. Billie Holiday Companion: Seven Decades of Commentary. New York: Schirmer Books, 1997.
Holiday, Billie, with William Dufty. Lady Sings the Blues. 1956. Reprint, with a new discography by Vincent Pelote, New York: Penguin, 1995.
Margolick, David. Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights. Philadelphia: Running Press, 2000.
O’Meally, Robert G. Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1991.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve. Polygram, CD set, 1992.
The Complete Decca Recordings. GRP, CD set, 1991.
Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday (1991). Kultur Video, VHS, 1991.
Lady Sings the Blues (1972). Paramount, VHS, 1996.
Love Songs. Sony/Columbia, CD, 1996.