Billie Holiday would be 99 years old on April 7, 2014. Happy birthday to the great Billie Holiday.
Eleanora Fagan was born on April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to a single mother, who when she became pregnant, was thrown out of her parent’s house in Baltimore.
Better known as Billie Holiday, she had a difficult childhood and was raised in part by her mother’s half sister who lived in Baltimore. To say that the young Billie Holiday had a difficult childhood is an understatement. She was sent to reform school for truancy before she even reached the age of 10 and dropped out of school completely at the age of 11. She was raped by a neighbor soon thereafter and spent a year in protective custody. After that, she worked running errands in a brothel, where she was exposed to the music of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. In 1929, when Billie was 14, she and her mother moved to Harlem. Her mother became a prostitute; Billie became one soon after.
Living in Harlem, she began to sing at local nightclubs and took the name of Billie for the actress Billie Dove, and the last name of her father, Holiday. She sang as much as she could and began to be noticed: by Benny Goodman in 1931 and Chick Webb. She made her first recording when she was just 18. Producer John Hammond, who arranged for Billie to be recorded, said that “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.”
She got a record contract with Brunswick Records in 1935 and began to record with Teddy Wilson and his orchestra; their first recordings were “What A Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Miss Brown To You.” They were successful and began to launch Billie Holiday as a major artist and not just a “girl singer.” She also worked with saxophonist Lester Young, who gave her the nickname Lady Day. She, in turn, gave him the nickname Prez and these both stuck with the performers from then on. In 1937, she worked briefly with Count Basie. Out of this relationship, she recorded “Summertime,” “I Can’t Get Started” and “I Must Have That Man.”
She next started working with Artie Shaw, becoming the first black singer to appear with a white orchestra. It was during this time that she discovered one of her most important songs, “Strange Fruit,” which describes movingly a lynching. In spite of its disturbing images, the song sold quite well and was a big hit for her. Her success continued into the 1940s with songs including “Lover Man,” “Good Morning, Heartache” and “Trav’lin’ Light.”
At the height of her success in the late 1940s, she was arrested in her home for narcotics possession. Her trial was a disaster; her lawyer didn’t even appear in court to plead her case. Holiday, who was ill, pled guilty and asked to be put in a hospital. Instead, she was sent to the Alderson Federal Prison. Her sentence was reduced due to good behavior. Her manager got her a concert in Carnegie Hall in 1948, which sold out and was a critical and monetary success. Her drug problems continued, however, resulting in an arrest in San Francisco. As a result, she lost her Cabaret Card in New York, meaning that she was unable to perform in any New York club that served alcohol.
She began to deteriorate physically, which also affected her voice. However, she did work on her autobiography Lady Sings The Blues (written by friend and ghostwriter William Duffy). The book was published in 1956, She released an album of the same name in June 1956, including several new tracks and the best of her older ones.
Later in 1956, she appeared again at Carnegie Hall for two sold-out concerts. Recordings of the concert were released in the UK in 1961 as The Essential Billie Holiday.
Billie Holiday entered the hospital in 1959 with liver and heart disease. She was arrested for drug possession while in the hospital; her room was raided and she remained under police guard until she passed away on July 17, 1959.
Having been swindled out of most of her earnings by producers and husbands, she had 70 cents in the bank and $750 on her person when she died.
Billie Holiday’s effect on jazz is as important as that of Louis Armstrong. She showed generations of singers, including Tony Bennett, what a true jazz vocalist was.
For more information about Billie Holiday, visit her official website maintained by The Estate of Billie Holiday at www.billieholiday.com.
We include links to a few of our favorite songs of hers.
Trav’lin Light, a song by Billie Holiday on Spotify
God Bless The Child, a song by Billie Holiday on Spotify
Strange Fruit, a song by Billie Holiday on Spotify
You are loved by jazz fans everywhere.