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Billie Holiday
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Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan; April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959) was an American jazz singer and songwriter. Nicknamed Lady Day by her loyal 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", and "Lady Sings the Blues". She also became famous for singing jazz standards written by others, including "Easy Living" and "Strange Fruit."

Biography

Early life

Raised Roman Catholic, Billie Holiday had a difficult childhood, which greatly affected her life and career. Not much is known about the true details of her early life, though stories of it appeared in her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, first published in 1956 and later revealed to contain many inaccuracies.

Billie Holiday at two years old in 1917

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", presumably to distance herself from her neglectful father, but eventually changed it back to "Holiday".

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 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 night clubs. 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 like "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.

Billie also wrote songs during the 1930s. Such songs include "Billie's Blues", "Tell Me More (And Then Some)", "Everything Happens For The Best", "Our Love Is Different", and "Long Gone Blues".

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)

In addition to owning Commodore Records, Milt Gabler was an A&R man for Decca Records, and he signed Holiday to the label in 1944 when Holiday was 29. Her first recording for Decca, "Lover Man" 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.

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 didn't return back 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 an additional strings, and a viola.

This is Holiday's only recording session in 1945, for she returned again back to the studio back in January of 1946, recording here 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.

At the end of the year in December, Billie recorded "The Blues Are Brewin", a song that she in her first and last feature film, New Orleans. She also recorded "Guilty".

In February of 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 recorded with Teddy Wilson in the last 30's.

Billie's next recording was after her realese from prison in 1948. She recorded this time with a vocal group behind her (The Stardusters). She recorded "Weep No More" and "Girls Were Made to Take Care of Boys". Worried that people wouldn't like the recordings, they recorded two more songs without the group. These singles became one 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

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) due to 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 at the idea because she thought that nobody would accept her back, but she decided to go with the idea.

On March 27, 1948, the Carnegie concert was a success. Everything was sold out before the concert started. It isn't certain how many sets Holiday did. She did sing Cole Porter's "Night and Day" and "Strange Fruit". The concert was not recorded.

Early and mid 1950s

Billie Holiday in court in late 1949.
She was charged with the possession of opium, even though it was her boyfriend's.

Although childless, Billie Holiday had two godchildren: singer Billie Lorraine Feather, daughter of Leonard Feather, and Bevan Dufty, son of William Dufty.

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, her drug dealer, eventually becoming 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 relations with abusive men led to deteriorating health. As evidenced by her later recordings, Holiday's voice coarsened and did not project the vibrance it once had. However, she retained — and, perhaps, strengthened — the emotional impact of her delivery.

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, a la Arthur Murray dance schools.

Her late recordings on Verve constitute about a third of her commercial recorded legacy and are as well remembered 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 before a packed audience at Carnegie Hall, a major accomplishment for any artist, especially a black artist of the segregated period of American history. 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 her way.

Death

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.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1991

http://www.billie-holiday.net

http://www.myspace.com/billieholiday

www.myspace.com/billieholidayfriends

 

 

 

 

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