Billie HolidayMay 28th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment
1915 – 1959 Billie Holiday, affectionately known as “Lady Day,” lent a life of suffering to her art, and created a unique vocal style. Many of her songs embody her pain in a way that touches a chord in the audience. Her heartfelt rendition of the anti-racism song “Strange Fruit” serves as an enduring part of her influential legacy.
Conflicting Reports of an Uneasy Childhood
Holiday’s early life is the subject of conflicting reports, complicated by her own ghost-written biography, Lady Sings the Blues. Her grandfather was allegedly one of 17 children of a slave. Born Eleanora Fagan into poverty and out of wedlock, Holiday’s mother Sadie was only 13 at the time of her birth. It is likely that she was born in Philadelphia and moved to Baltimore at an early age, where she would spend the rest of her childhood. Her father, Clarence Holiday, played guitar with Fletcher Henderson. He abandoned the family without marrying Fagan and rarely saw Holiday again.
Rumors of childhood rape and prostitution are unsubstantiated, but what must have been an oppressive experience left the child with deep emotional scars and a propensity for self-destructive behavior. She apparently ran errands and scrubbed floors at a Baltimore brothel, where she may have gained an early musical influence hearing Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith recordings on a Victrola.
Mother and daughter moved to New York City in the early 1930s. Working at nightclubs in a menial capacity, Holiday discovered she had a talent for singing and began to perform. The year 1932 marked her discovery by the record producer John Hammond. He teamed her with Benny Goodman for several recordings in 1933, establishing her musical credentials. Holiday performed at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in 1934, with pianist and then-lover Bobby Henderson, and soon was playing clubs along New York’s jazz mecca, 52nd Street. Color barriers were breached when Holiday performed with white artists.
In 1935, she joined a band under Teddy Wilson, which launched a musically fertile period. A who’s who of swing musicians would perform with her during the next few years, including Lester Young (who dubbed her Lady Day) and Buck Clayton. Holiday sang with the Count Basie Orchestra for much of 1937, and with Artie Shaw’s Orchestra for part of 1938. In both cases, conflicting record label contracts prevented recordings, and only sparse taped radio broadcasts survive.
Despite her growing fame, Holiday had to contend with racism. She was forced to use back entrances, and wait in darkened rooms separated from the audience. However, once on stage, she had the ability to become the iconic Lady Day, with the trademark white gardenia in her hair, inimitable phrasing, and surpassing dramatic intensity. She recorded the seminal “Strange Fruit” in 1939. The song, written as an anti-racist indictment of Southern lynchings of Blacks, became a permanent part of her repertoire with its shocking imagery and heartfelt soul. It was Lady Day at her emotionally bruised and artistically accomplished finest.
She became the star attraction of her ensembles during the period up to 1943, recording “Fine and Mellow” (1939), and her own classic composition “God Bless the Child” (1941). The emotional commitment evident in her work was born out by her own saying, “I’ve lived songs like that.” A 1941 marriage to trombonist Jimmy Monroe was true to this observation; the relationship was abusive, and part of a pattern of violent men. Drug use, which probably began recreationally at an early age, became serious for her with the use of heroin.
Adding to a Life of Sorrow
The years 1944 to 1949 had Holiday recording many of her most successful records with the Decca label. This was also a strong period for her voice, with the irony that her addiction to heroin deepened. Her greatest hit, “Lover Man,” was a Decca release, as were “Them There Eyes,” “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” and “Crazy He Calls Me.” Drug charges led Holiday to spend part of 1947 in prison, and to the loss of her cabaret license which handicapped her performing career. The resulting publicity added to her cache. She also appeared in one Hollywood film during this period (“New Orleans,”1946).
The years of drug abuse took their toll on her singing. Despite recordings beginning in 1952 with such veterans as Harry “Sweets” Edison, Ben Webster, Buddy DeFranco, and Charlie Shavers, Holiday’s voice aged audibly. A 1957 television broadcast of “The Sound of Jazz” was followed by a 1958 album entitled “Lady in Satin,” featuring lush orchestral accompaniments to a badly weakened voice.
The end occurred one year later. Holiday died of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 44, destitute, and was arrested on her deathbed for possession of heroin. She had recorded over 200 songs, but never earned royalties. The demons that had haunted her life, and had driven her music, ended her sad life far too soon. But her influence on generations of singers lives on, with her chilling message for human rights, “Southern trees bear strange fruit.”