Tomorrow is the centennial of Billie Holiday. Her haunting, soulful sound was laden with personal stories of heartbreak and misfortune. A victim of circumstance from early on, she took to substance abuse as a means not only of coping but in defiance of social norms. She was surrounded by dope all her life as a jazz musician—it was part of the jazz underground scene. However, addiction was considered a crime then, rather than an illness as it is today.
Born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915, Billie bounced around Baltimore slums between relatives’ homes and Catholic reform school until dropping out of school at age 11. Her young mother was never married to Billie’s father, Clarence Holiday, a jazz guitarist in Fletcher Henderson’s band. Focused on his own music career and traveling with the band, he rarely visited them. Billie’s mother had been disowned by her own parents for becoming pregnant at 19, and bounced around herself between odd jobs and men. Finally, at age 14, Billie moved to Harlem to be with her mother, but consequently, fell into prostitution alongside her. Both were sent to prison and eventually to a workhouse.
At 15, the teenage Billie reestablished contact with her father, who was by then a fairly well-known musician on the New York City jazz scene. She would accompany him to shows and began singing in night clubs and even adopted her stage name: ‘Billie’ for the actress, Billie Dove, whom she admired; and ‘Holiday’—her father’s surname. Music had always been a respite from Billie’s sorrows. As a child, she imitated everything she heard on the radio, and was especially fond of blues singer, Bessie Smith, and jazz trumpeter, Louis Armstrong.
With her signature vocals and striking stage persona, Billie’s popularity grew, and soon she was performing all over town. In 1933, she had her first major break when she was discovered by the legendary A&R man, John Hammond (think: Bob Dylan and Robert Johnson). She was only 18 at the time, but he signed her and produced her first two sides: “Your Mother’s Son-in-Law” and “Riffin’ the Scotch” with Benny Goodman and His Orchestra. The latter sold 5,000 copies and launched her singing career.
One of Billie’s trademarks…like Edith Piaf’s single-sleeved dresses..came about as an accident. The flower in her hair covered up a burned area caused by a flammable hair relaxer; back in the day it was sometimes done with gasoline.
Despite her growing popularity, she still encountered rampant racism, even as she performed and recorded with the likes of Count Basie’s Orchestra and the all-white Artie Shaw’s Band. In the latter case, it was the first time an African-American vocalist had ever performed onstage together with an all-white band, and there were many still violently opposed to racial integration.
Nevertheless, Billie’s will was indefatigable. All this rough and tumble was only more fodder for her craft. She once remarked, “Anything I sing, it’s a part of my life.” Drawing from the depths of excruciating personal heartbreak, Billie used her voice as an instrument to express human pathos in a way that no others could. Her phrasing has often been compared to a horn and mirrors Lester Young’s legato, rubato style. Check out this 1957 CBS taping in Studio 58 of “Fine & Mellow” below to watch her perform. Together with Lester Young’s mellow saxophone playing, these two lifelong friends created unforgettable performances.
In 1939, Billie very audaciously performed Abel Meeropol’s poem, “Strange Fruit,” to protest the lynchings of African-Americans. Despite being discouraged from recording it by both Hammond and her then-label, Columbia Records, for fear of reprisal, Billie obtained a one-session release to record this provocative song with the alternative jazz label, Commodore/Vocalion Records. The album was a huge hit and sold over a million copies, though the song itself was so incendiary that it was banned from airplay for years.
The 1940–1950s were an especially turbulent period for Billie, fraught with abusive relationships, drugs, alcohol, and imprisonment for possession of narcotics—the toll of which saw the devastating decline of her health, voice, and career. Yet somehow, whenever her “personal problems” (the euphemism back then for heroin addiction) seemed about to derail her bookings, Lady Day still sold out concerts throughout Europe and back home at Carnegie Hall.
Years ago, I remember that one of the late night KCRW DJs was playing a track off Billie’s final album from 1958, the devastating Lady in Satin, where her voice sounds shattered from a life of suffering. Ray Ellis, the orchestra conductor and arranger for the album, just happened to be listening and called into the station to reminisce. He recalled that she had had to cut her vocal tracks after the orchestral charts had already been recorded because she had failed to show up for the sessions and had been too inebriated during the final one.
Nevertheless, songs like her devastating version “You’ve Changed” are heart-rending and continue to stir peoples’ emotions to this day.
Ellis said later of her swan song album,
“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.”
Billie passed away on July 17, 1959, under the watchful eye of a police officer who stood guard outside her Metropolitan Hospital room in New York. She had been arrested a month before, once again, for drug charges. A life of excess had finally caught up with her.
But Lady Day’s legacy has far from faded. Her memory lives on through her music and continues to inspire musicians the world over. The New York Times just published a full list of ‘Holidayana’ centennial tributes in her remembrance: a superb new biography by jazz historian, John Szwed, titled, Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth; new albums of her songs reimagined by José James and Cassandra Wilson; and several upcoming concerts (for those of you in New York) featuring James, Wilson, the magnificent Cécile McLoren Salvant, and Andy Bey. For those of us here in LA, Columbia University’s WKCR is celebrating Billie Holiday with special features all this week, which you can stream online.
Watch the BBC documentary, The Billie Holiday Story.
Finally, I got to know the great photographer Herman Leonard in his last years and always loved his photograph of Billie cooking a steak for her dog. He’d arrived at her house and she emerged from the kitchen with an apron on. He snapped the photo of her boxer waiting for its dinner.