Hand color tinted photo of Billie Holiday, 1949
Billie Holiday (born Elinore Harris; April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959) was an American jazz singer and songwriter. Nicknamed Lady Day by her friend and musical partner Lester Young, Holiday was a seminal influence on jazz and pop singing. Her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo. Above all, she was admired for her deeply personal and intimate approach to singing. Critic John Bush wrote that she “changed the art of American pop vocals forever.” She co-wrote only a few songs, but several of them have become jazz standards, notably “God Bless the Child”, “Don’t Explain”, “Fine and Mellow, “and “Lady Sings the Blues”. She also became famous for singing jazz standards written by others, including “Easy Living” and “Strange Fruit”.
Raised Roman Catholic, Billie Holiday had a difficult childhood, which greatly affected her life and career. Not much is known for certain about her early life, and her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, first published in 1956, was later revealed to contain many inaccuracies.
Her professional pseudonym was taken from Billie Dove, an actress she admired, and Clarence Holiday, her probable father. At the outset of her career, she spelled her last name Halliday, which was the birth-surname of her father, but eventually changed it to Holiday, his performing name.
There is some controversy regarding Holiday’s paternity, stemming from a copy of her birth certificate in the Baltimore archives that lists the father as a “Frank DeViese”. Some historians consider this an anomaly, probably inserted by a hospital or government worker.
Thrown out of her parents’ home in Sandtown Baltimore after becoming pregnant at thirteen, Billie’s mother, Sadie Fagan, moved to Philadelphia, where Billie was born. Mother and child eventually settled in a poor section of Baltimore. Her parents married when she was three, but they soon divorced, leaving her to be raised largely by her mother and other relatives. At the age of 10, she reported that she had been raped. That claim, combined with her frequent truancy, resulted in her being sent to The House of the Good Shepherd, a Catholic reform school, in 1925. It was only through the assistance of a family friend that she was released two years later. Scarred by these experiences, Holiday moved to New York City with her mother in 1928. In 1929, Holiday’s mother discovered a neighbor, Wilbert Rich, in the act of raping her daughter; Rich was sentenced to three months in jail.
Early singing career
According to Billie Holiday’s own account, she was recruited by a brothel, worked as a prostitute in 1930, and was eventually imprisoned for a short time for solicitation. It was in Harlem in the early 1930s that she started singing for tips in various nightclubs. According to legend, penniless and facing eviction, she sang “Travelin’ All Alone” in a local club and reduced the audience to tears. She later worked at various clubs for tips, ultimately landing at Pod’s and Jerry’s, a well-known Harlem jazz club. Her early work history is hard to verify, though accounts say she was working at a club named Monette’s in 1933 when she was discovered by talent scout John Hammond.
Hammond arranged for Holiday to make her recording debut in November 1933 with Benny Goodman, singing two songs: “Your Mother’s Son-In-Law” and “Riffin’ the Scotch”. Goodman was also on hand in 1935, when she continued her recording career with a group led by pianist Teddy Wilson. Their first collaboration included “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Miss Brown To You”, which helped to establish Holiday as a major vocalist. She began recording under her own name a year later, producing a series of extraordinary performances with groups comprising the swing era’s finest musicians.
Wilson was signed to Brunswick Records by John Hammond for the purpose of recording current pop tunes in the new swing style for the growing jukebox trade. They were given free rein to improvise the material. Holiday’s amazing method of improvising the melody line to fit the emotion was revolutionary. (Wilson and Holiday took pedestrian pop tunes, such as “Twenty-Four Hours A Day” or “Yankee Doodle Never Went To Town”, and turned them into jazz classics with their arrangements.) With few exceptions, the recordings she made with Wilson or under her own name during the 1930s and early 1940s are regarded as important parts of the jazz vocal library. Catching the attention of musicians nationwide, singers began to imitate Holiday’s light, rhythmic manner.
Among the musicians who accompanied her frequently was tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who had been a boarder at her mother’s house in 1934 and with whom she had a special rapport. “Well, I think you can hear that on some of the old records, you know. Some time I’d sit down and listen to ’em myself, and it sound like two of the same voices, if you don’t be careful, you know, or the same mind, or something like that.” Young nicknamed her “Lady Day”, and she, in turn, dubbed him “Prez”. She did a three-month residency at Clark Monroe’s Uptown House in New York in 1937. In the late 1930s, she also had brief stints as a big band vocalist with Count Basie (1937) and Artie Shaw (1938). The latter association placed her among the first black women to work with a white orchestra, an arrangement that went against the tenor of the times.
The Commodore years and “Strange Fruit”
Holiday was recording for Columbia in the late 1930s when she was introduced to “Strange Fruit”, a song based on a poem about lynching written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx. Meeropol used the pseudonym “Lewis Allan” for the poem, which was set to music and performed at teachers’ union meetings. It was eventually heard by Barney Josephson, proprietor of Café Society, an integrated nightclub in Greenwich Village, who introduced it to Holiday. She performed it at the club in 1939, with some trepidation, fearing possible retaliation. Holiday later said that the imagery in “Strange Fruit” reminded her of her father’s death and that this played a role in her resistance to performing it. In a 1958 interview, she also bemoaned the fact that many people did not grasp the song’s message: “They’ll ask me to ‘sing that sexy song about the people swinging'”, she said.
When Holiday’s producers at Columbia found the subject matter too sensitive, Milt Gabler agreed to record it for his Commodore Records. That was done in April, 1939, and “Strange Fruit” remained in her repertoire for twenty years. She later recorded it again for Verve. While the Commodore release did not get airplay, the controversial song sold well, though Gabler attributed that mostly to the record’s other side, “Fine and Mellow”, which was a jukebox hit.
Decca years and “Lover Man” (1944-1950)
Milt Gabler eventually became an A&R man for Decca Records, in addition to owning Commodore Records, and he signed Holiday to the label on August 7, 1944, when Holiday was 29. Her first recording for Decca was “Lover Man” (#5 R&B) and “No More”. “Lover Man” was a song written especially for her by Jimmy Davis, Roger “Ram” Ramirez, and Jimmy Sherman. Although its lyrics describe a woman who has never known love (“I long to try something I never had”), its theme—a woman longing for a missing lover—and its refrain, “Lover man, oh, where can you be?”, struck a chord in wartime America, and the record became one of her biggest hits. Holiday’s slow, melodic songs of unrequited love aided her career, becoming a popular star in the 1940’s.
A month later, in November, Billie Holiday returned to the Decca studio to record three songs, “That Ole Devil Called Love”, “Big Stuff”, and “Dont Explain”. Holiday wrote “Don’t Explain” after she caught her husband, Jimmy Monroe, with lipstick on his collar.
After the recording session, Holiday did not return to the studio until August 1945. She recorded “Don’t Explain”, “Big Stuff”, “You Better Go Now”, and “What is This Thing Called Love?”. “Big Stuff” and “Don’t Explain” were recorded again but with additional strings and a viola.
This was Holiday’s only recording session in 1945, for she returned again to the studio in January 1946, recording her biggest hits: “No Good Man” and “Good Morning Heartache”. “Big Stuff” was also recorded for the third time. She came back on March 13, 1946, to record “Big Stuff” with a smaller group.
In December 1946, Billie recorded “The Blues Are Brewin”, a song that she performed in her first and last feature film, New Orleans. She also recorded “Guilty”.
In February 1947, Holiday recorded two hits, “There Is No Greater Love” and the haunting “Deep Song”. She also recorded “Solitude” and “Easy Living”, songs that she had recorded with Teddy Wilson in the late 1930s.
Billie’s next recording was after her release from prison in 1948; this time, she had a vocal group behind her (The Stardusters). She recorded “Weep No More” and “Girls Were Made to Take Care of Boys”. Worried that people would not like the recordings, they recorded two more songs without the group. These singles became some of her biggest hits on Decca. She recorded “My Man” and Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy”.
The next year, Billie had a streak of hits, from her brassy rendition of Bessie Smith’s “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 “Sombody’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”.
Film In 1933, Billie Holiday appeared as in extra in Paul Robeson’s The Emperor Jones.
Then, in 1935, she had a small role as a woman being abused by her lover in Duke Ellington’s short “Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life”. She also sang a tune called “Saddest Tale”.
Holiday made one major film appearance, opposite Louis Armstrong in New Orleans (1947). The musical drama featured Holiday singing with Armstrong and his band and was directed by Arthur Lubin. Holiday was not pleased that her role was that of a maid, as she recalled in her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues:
“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 also appeared 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 Carnegie Hall comeback concert
On May 16, 1947, Holiday was arrested for the possession of narcotics and drugs in her New York apartment. On May 27, 1947, she was in court. “It was called ‘The United States of America versus Billie Holiday’. And that’s just the way it felt,” Holiday recalled in her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues. Holiday pleaded guilty 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.
Luckily for Holiday, she was released early (March 16, 1948) because of good behavior. When she arrived at Newark, everybody was there to welcome her back, including her pianist. Bobby Tucker. “I might just as well have wheeled into Penn Station and had a quiet little get-together with the Associated Press, United Press, and International News Service.”
Ed Fishman (who fought with Joe Glaser to be Holiday’s manager) thought of the idea to throw a comeback concert at Carnegie Hall. Holiday hesitated, unsure whether audiences were ready to accept her after the arrest. She eventually gave in, and agreed to the concert.
On March 27, 1948, Holiday played Carnegie Hall to a sold-out crowd. It is not certain how many sets Holiday did, as the concert was not recorded, but the sets included Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” and “Strange Fruit”.
Less than a year later, Holiday was arrested again on January 22, 1949, inside her room at San Francisco’s Hotel Mark Twain.
Early and mid 1950s
Holiday stated that she began using hard drugs in the early 1940s. She married trombonist Jimmy Monroe on August 25, 1941. While still married to Monroe, she became romantically involved with trumpeter Joe Guy (musician) Joe Guy, who was also her drug dealer, and eventually became his common law wife. She finally divorced Monroe in 1947 and also split with Guy. Because of her 1947 conviction, her New York City Cabaret Card was revoked, which kept her from working in clubs there for the remaining 12 years of her life, except when she played at the Ebony Club in 1948, where she opened under the permission of John Levy.
By the 1950s, Holiday’s drug abuse, drinking, and relationships with abusive men caused her health to deteriorate. Her later recordings showed the effects on her voice, as it grew coarse and no longer projected the vibrancy it once had. In spite of this, however, she retained—and perhaps strengthened—the emotional impact of her delivery (See below).
On March 28, 1952, Holiday married Louis McKay, a Mafia enforcer. McKay, like most of the men in her life, was abusive, but he did try to get her off drugs. They were separated at the time of her death, but McKay had plans to start a chain of Billie Holiday vocal studios, à la Arthur Murray dance schools.
Her late recordings on Verve constitute about a third of her commercial recorded legacy and are as popular as her earlier work for the Columbia, Commodore and Decca labels. In later years, her voice became more fragile, but it never lost the edge that had always made it so distinctive. On November 10, 1956, she performed two concerts before packed audiences at Carnegie Hall, a major accomplishment for any artist, especially a black artist of the segregated period of American history. Live recordings of the second Carnegie Hall concert were released on a Verve/HMV album in the UK in late 1961 called The Essential Billie Holiday. The thirteen tracks included on this album featured her own songs “Love My Man”, “Don’t Explain” and “Fine And Mellow”, together with other songs closely associated with her, including “Body and Soul”, “My Man”, and “Lady Sings the Blues” (her lyrics accompanied a tune by pianist Herbie Nichols).
The liner notes on this album were penned partly by Gilbert Millstein of The New York Times, who, according to these notes, served as narrator in the Carnegie Hall concerts, taking position at a lectern to the left of the stage. Interspersed among Holiday’s songs, Millstein read aloud four lengthy passages from her autobiography Lady Sings The Blues. He later wrote: “The narration began with the ironic account of her birth in Baltimore – ‘Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was sixteen, and I was three’ – and ended, very nearly shyly, with her hope for love and a long life with ‘my man’ at her side.” Millstein continued, “It was evident, even then, that Miss Holiday was ill. I had known her casually over the years and I was shocked at her physical weakness. Her rehearsal had been desultory; her voice sounded tinny and trailed off; her body sagged tiredly. But I will not forget the metamorphosis that night. The lights went down, the musicians began to play and the narration began. Miss Holiday stepped from between the curtains, into the white spotlight awaiting her, wearing a white evening gown and white gardenias in her black hair. She was erect and beautiful; poised and smiling. And when the first section of narration was ended, she sang – with strength undiminished – with all of the art that was hers. I was very much moved. In the darkness, my face burned and my eyes. I recall only one thing. I smiled.”
Nat Hentoff of Down Beat magazine, who attended this same Carnegie Hall concert, penned the remainder of the sleeve notes on the 1961 album. He wrote of her performance: “Throughout the night, Billie was in superior form to what had sometimes been the case in the last years of her life. Not only was there assurance of phrasing and intonation; but there was also an outgoing warmth, a palpable eagerness to reach and touch the audience. And there was mocking wit. A smile was often lightly evident on her lips and her eyes as if, for once, she could accept the fact that there were people who did dig her.” Hentoff continued, “The beat flowed in her uniquely sinuous, supple way of moving the story along; the words became her own experiences; and coursing through it all was Lady’s sound – a texture simultaneously steel-edged and yet soft inside; a voice that was almost unbearably wise in disillusion and yet still childlike, again at the centre. The audience was hers from before she sang, greeting her and saying good-bye with heavy, loving applause. And at one time, the musicians too applauded. It was a night when Billie was on top, undeniably the best and most honest jazz singer alive.”
Her performance of “Fine And Mellow” on CBS’s The Sound of Jazz program is memorable for her interplay with her long-time friend Lester Young; both were less than two years from death. (See the clip here.)
Holiday first toured Europe in 1954 as part of a Leonard Feather package that also included Buddy DeFranco and Red Norvo. When she returned almost five years later, she made one of her last television appearances for Granada’s Chelsea at Nine in London. Her final studio recordings were made for MGM in 1959, with lush backing from Ray Ellis and his Orchestra, who had also accompanied her on Columbia’s Lady in Satin album the previous year—see below. The MGM sessions were released posthumously on a self-titled album, later re-titled and re-released as Last Recordings.
Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, was ghostwritten by William Dufty and published in 1956. Dufty, a New York Post writer and editor then married to Holiday’s close friend Maely Dufty, wrote the book quickly from a series of conversations with the singer in the Duftys’ 93rd Street apartment, drawing on the work of earlier interviewers as well. His aim was to let Holiday tell her story in her own way.
Although childless, Billie Holiday had two godchildren: singer Billie Lorraine Feather, daughter of Leonard Feather, and Bevan Dufty, son of William Dufty.
On May 31, 1959, she was taken to Metropolitan Hospital in New York suffering from liver and heart disease. Police officers were stationed at the door to her room. She was arrested for drug possession as she lay dying, and her hospital room was raided by authorities. Holiday remained under police guard at the hospital until she died from cirrhosis of the liver on July 17, 1959. In the final years of her life, she had been progressively swindled out of her earnings, and she died with $0.70 in the bank and $750 (a tabloid fee) on her person.
Gilbert Millstein of The New York Times, who had been the narrator at Billie Holiday’s 1956 Carnegie Hall concerts and had partly written the sleeve notes for the album The Essential Billie Holiday (see above), described her death in these same 1961-dated sleeve notes:
“Billie Holiday died in the Metropolitan Hospital, New York, on Friday, July 17, 1959, in the bed in which she had been arrested for illegal possession of narcotics a little more than a month before, as she lay mortally ill; in the room from which a police guard had been removed – by court order – only a few hours before her death, which, like her life, was disorderly and pitiful. She had been strikingly beautiful, but she was wasted physically to a small, grotesque caricature of herself. The worms of every kind of excess – drugs were only one – had eaten her. … The likelihood exists that among the last thoughts of this cynical, sentimental, profane, generous and greatly talented woman of 44 was the belief that she was to be arraigned the following morning. She would have been, eventually, although possibly not that quickly. In any case, she removed herself finally from the jurisdiction of any court here below.”
Her distinct delivery made Billie Holiday’s performances instantly recognizable throughout her career. A master of improvisation, Billie’s well-trained ear more than compensated for her lack of music education. Her voice lacked range and was somewhat thin, plus years of abuse eventually altered the texture of her voice and gave it a prepossessing fragility. Nonetheless, the emotion with which she imbued each song remained not only intact but also profound. Her last major recording, a 1958 album entitled Lady in Satin, features the backing of a 40-piece orchestra conducted and arranged by Ray Ellis, who said of the album in 1997:
I would say that the most emotional moment was her listening to the playback of “I’m a Fool to Want You.” There were tears in her eyes … After we finished the album I went into the control room and listened to all the takes. I must admit I was unhappy with her performance, but I was just listening musically instead of emotionally. It wasn’t until I heard the final mix a few weeks later that I realized how great her performance really was.
References and tributes
In 1972, Diana Ross portrayed Holiday in the film Lady Sings the Blues, which is loosely based on the 1959 autobiography of the same name. The 1972 film earned Ross a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actress. She also has been portrayed by Ernestine Jackson in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. In 1987, Billie Holiday was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. The United States Postal Service introduced a Billie Holiday postage stamp in 1994, she ranked #6 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Women in Rock n’ Roll in 1999, and she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. Over the years, there have been many tributes to Billie Holiday, including “The Day Lady Died”, a 1959 poem by Frank O’Hara, and “Angel of Harlem”, a 1988 release by the group U2. A 1953 Holiday concert in New York is a key feature of the 2009 Arthur Phillips novel The Song is You.