Billie Holiday Biography

Eleanor(a) Harris, 7 April 1915, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, d. 17 July 1959, New York City, New York, USA. ‘Lady Day’ taught herself to sing during her early teens in Baltimore, Maryland, where she was brought up until moving to New York in 1929. Factual inaccuracies and elements of myth and exaggeration have clouded the picture of her formative years despite the best efforts of researchers to present her career story in a properly ordered manner. Not until Stuart Nicholson’s immaculately researched book appeared in 1995 was a detailed and reliable account of these years made available. Nicholson’s research revealed that some of the statements made by the singer in her 1956 autobiography, Lady Sings The Blues, were true, despite having been dismissed as exaggeration by other writers.

Holidays’ teenage parents, Sadie Harris (aka Fagan) and probable father, Clarence Holiday, (Frank DeVeazy was also suggested) probably never married, and it seems unlikely that they lived together for any length of time. Holiday, a banjo and guitar player is remembered principally for his work with Fletcher Henderson’s band in the early 30s. He remains a somewhat shadowy figure who left his daughter in the care of Fagan or other relatives. As a musician with touring bands in the later 20s Holiday would often be away from home, and during the stay with Henderson, which lasted until 1932, the guitarist severed connections with the Fagans. However Billie proved hard to shake off after joining her mother in New York’s Harlem district, and when rent on their apartment was overdue, she confronted Clarence at the Roseland Ballroom - where Henderson’s orchestra enjoyed a lengthy ‘residency’ - and extorted money by threatening to show him up publicly.

Fragments of information about Holiday’s deprived, cruelly exploited and extravagantly ill-fated early history prove she had learned how to survive extreme poverty, race prejudice and the injustice of black ghetto life by the time she was 15 or 16. Also, they hint at a more influential relationship between father and daughter (no matter how tenuous it might have been) than Holiday revealed in print. Clarence, a more than competent guitarist with a reputation for ‘good time’ in a rhythm section, seemed surrounded by paradox. Through the 30s, even after his barely noted death early in 1937, compilers of books which included record reviews and personnel listings employed the spellings Haliday or Halliday, and there is evidence that Billie used that name occasionally until persuaded to sing professionally as Billie Holiday. For jazz historians the interest lies in tracking down a link between her father’s fine, relaxed sense of rhythm and her own astonishing command of time and swing: laid-back swing of a type not previously heard on records by singers. Since Holiday had very little schooling and no formal musical training, her extraordinary creative gifts were intuitive in the first place. She developed her singing in obscure New York speakeasies and Harlem nightclubs such as Pods’ and Jerry’s Log Cabin, the Yeah Man, Monette Moore’s Supper Club, the Hot-Cha, Alabama Grill and Dickie Wells’ place. She even sang at the local Elks club in order to pick up a few dollars in tips. Poverty was the spur, the initial incentive, but the dedication she then displayed to the mastering of jazz-craft is not easy to explain. No amount of theorizing will help to a real understanding of her seemingly instinctive gift for music-making. She was a perfectionist in her fashion, depending upon her excellent ear, innate taste and honesty of purpose to make up artistically for her small voice and range.

This integrity, so far as vocal sound and style went, is the more baffling because of the insecurity and brutal ugliness of her early life. She had already survived rape at age 11 and a period in care which followed this attack. In New York she endured a brief stint as a prostitute for which she and her mother were arrested in 1929. For this she served 100 days at the workhouse on Blackwell’s Island on the East River (later known as Welfare Island). It has frequently been stated that fame and success depend largely on an artist or performer being in the right place at the right time. In Holiday’s case, the lucky break came when she found herself by sheer chance singing in front of the well-connected record producer and talent spotter John Hammond Jnr. Hammond had stopped off at the 133rd Street club with the intention of listening to singer Monette Moore. Instead of the blues singer, a performer who had been recording since 1923, he heard the unknown girl deputizing for Monette (absent, playing in a Broadway show) and was immediately impressed. ‘She sang popular songs in a manner that made them completely her own’, Hammond wrote later in his autobiography, praising her excellent memory for lyrics and sense of phrasing. He also gave Holiday the first press notice of her career. In April 1933 it appeared in the Melody Maker, and Hammond wrote: ‘This month there has been a real find in the person of a singer called Billie Halliday’ (she had by now adopted the first name of film actress Billie Dove, a childhood favourite whom she regarded as the epitome of glamour).

Hammond represented a real break in Holiday’s long run of bad luck because he had the power and willingness to forward the careers of those he thought worthy of special aid. The enthusiasm of his initial reaction to the promising youngster was shown in his description, ‘She is incredibly beautiful and sings as well as anybody I ever heard’, printed in the 1933 Melody Maker. Living up to his reputation, Hammond ‘got into the habit of bringing people uptown to hear Billie’. Benny Goodman shared his opinion of Holiday and agreed to record with her. In the course of three sessions during November and December 1933, two songs were recorded with Goodman in charge of a nine-man studio group most of whom were strangers to the already nervous Holiday. ‘Your Mother’s Son-in-Law’ was the first record she ever made; ‘Riffin’ The Scotch’, a lightweight novelty concoction, was the second. Neither was successful as a showcase for her - nor, in truth, designed to be - because her role in the proceedings presented Holiday as band vocalist in a setting which stressed the instrumental prowess of Goodman, trombonist Jack Teagarden and other soloists. However, the singer managed to stamp her imprint on the vocal refrains and, for a young black performer with no experience of recording and, in her words, ‘afraid to sing in the mike’, came across as reasonably confident. For the Lady (she had earned that nickname on the Harlem club circuit for her regal sense of dignity, and it was amended by Lester Young who added a typically personal touch, calling her Lady Day), expecting little she was not disappointed. Royalties were not routinely paid to recording artists in those days, and Holiday remembered receiving a flat fee of about 35 dollars for her work. Having a record on the market was no great deal; she placed little value on either song, not bothering to include them in her club or stage programmes or future recording repertoire.

Holiday continued her round of club dates, as well as being heard in the film Symphony In Black, made with Duke Ellington and released in 1935. Her career was given a boost when she won a week’s engagement at the Apollo Theatre, Harlem’s most famous and, for up-and-coming artists, formidable entertainment centre. Holiday, then just 20 years old, appeared with pianist Bobbie Henderson and her notices were, at best, mildly critical. Clearly, her relaxed, seemingly lazy, behind-the-beat style did not appeal to the Apollo’s often vociferous patrons. Nevertheless, when the entire show was held over for a second week, at which time she appeared with Ralph Cooper’s orchestra, her notices improved thanks to her capacity to adapt. By this time, Holiday had settled on the spelling of her name (earlier, her given name, Eleanora, was also subject to variation). By mid-July the singer had returned to the recording studio for a session organized by Hammond and directed by Teddy Wilson. In Wilson, an accomplished musician and sensitive pianist, Holiday had found the sympathetic partner she needed to reveal the full range of her talents. The four songs picked for this groundbreaking record session were above average - ‘I Wished On The Moon’ and ‘Miss Brown To You’ were film numbers - and the easygoing jam-session atmosphere suited Holiday admirably. She responded to Wilson’s masterly accompaniments and solo playing, and to the brilliance of Goodman, Roy Eldridge and Ben Webster, and similar jazz aces on subsequent recordings. They in turn seemed to be spurred by the rhythmic thrust and innovative magic of her singing. Here was a rising star (since 10 July 1936 she had achieved own-name status on the Vocalion Records label) who could invest ordinary popular songs with the emotional kick of a first-rate blues or ballad composition. The records also paid off sufficiently well to satisfy the marketing men.

Following appearances at a few slightly more prestigious venues than hitherto, Holiday sang with the bands of Count Basie (1937-38) and Artie Shaw (1938). She enjoyed the company of the bandsmen, and had an affair with Basie’s guitarist Freddie Green. In spite of this rapport, the period with Basie was not a consistently happy one for Holiday, who encountered setbacks on the road and rejection by management people who disliked her ‘way-out’ style, or criticism from friends advising her to tailor her singing to the perceived requirements of the orchestra. As usual, Lady Day refused to compromise. She quit the Basie band, or was fired, in February of 1938 and, reservations about the touring life notwithstanding, joined Shaw almost at once and was on the road again, this time with a white band. She ran into trouble with racists, especially in the ‘Jim Crow’ southern states, and before the end of the year had left Shaw. It was to be her final appearance as a band member: from now on she would be presented as a solo artist. She continued making records and it seems likely that those closest to her heart were those recorded in association with Wilson, her beloved Young and trumpeter Buck Clayton. And there is an emerging consensus that the inspirational partnership of Holiday and Young - musical and emotional - led to a batch of the finest vocal interpretations of her life. Undeniably, these discs and others made between 1935 and 1942 are among the finest in jazz. Early in 1939, Holiday’s career took a giant step upwards. Again Hammond proffered a helping hand, as did Barney Josephson who dreamed of running a racially integrated nightclub in New York’s Greenwich Village. Hammond was the one who invested in the project and, asked to advise on appropriate attractions for liberal patrons, recommended Holiday. She opened at Café Society with Frankie Newton’s band that January and had her first taste of stardom at the Café whose slogan read ‘The wrong place for the right people’. Holiday stayed there for nearly nine months, during which time she was given a song-poem, ‘Strange Fruit’, an anti-lynching protest written by Abel Merropol, a white Jewish schoolteacher who used the pseudonym Lewis Allan. The song gave Holiday a real hit record and new and international fame as a purveyor of socially significant ballads. The track continued to be identified with Holiday who, on 20 April 1939, made a record of this controversial title for the Commodore label, her own having refused to record it. Opinion divided sharply on the merits of ‘Strange Fruit’ as a jazz vehicle, and the effect it had upon her instinctive taste and artistry. Critics feared it could lead to a self-consciousness which would destroy the strangely innocent qualities of earlier days.

Unfortunately as the sound of jazz progressed into the 40s and 50s Holiday responded positively, if unwisely, to some changes in the musical and social climate. Already an eager drinker, smoker of tobacco and marijuana, eater, dresser and shopper with a sexual appetite described as ‘healthy-plus’, she embraced the hard-drug culture of the 40s as to the manner born. She was having troublesome love affairs, nothing new to her, but on 25 August 1941 married Jimmy Monroe. It was a union that did nothing to ease her situation, being an on-off affair which lasted until their divorce in 1945. Nobody now can say when exactly, and by whom, but Holiday was turned on to opium and then heroin. The details are unimportant; the addiction hardly affected her singing at first, although her behaviour grew increasingly unpredictable, and she gained a reputation for unreliability. At last she was earning real money, as much as $1, 000 weekly, it was reported, and about half that sum was going to pay for her ‘habit’. Nevertheless, she now had the public recognition she craved. In the first Esquire magazine poll (1943) the critics voted her best vocalist, topping Mildred Bailey and Ella Fitzgerald in second and third places respectively.

Holiday was a stellar act, in spite of drug problems, and one accompanist spoke years later of her ‘phenomenal musicianship.’ The series of 78s - 36 titles made for Decca Records with a wide variety of more commercially acceptable accompaniments, including strings on a dozen or so sides and a vocal group on two - rank with the mature Holiday’s most accomplished performances, technically speaking, although the revolutionary approach had become more calculating and mannered. To compensate, she turned up the emotional heat, depending on her imagination to deliver the right touch. Among these 78s, recorded between October 1944 and March 1950, are a number of gems of jazz singing - among them ‘Lover Man’, ‘Porgy’, ‘Good Morning Heartache’, ‘You Better Go Now’ and, as a welcome example of Lady Day back to top form as a commanding, exuberant, mistress of swing phrasing, the mid-tempo blues-drenched ‘Now Or Never’. To round off this set, assembled on three The Lady Sings albums, she exhibits another facet of her craft by duetting comfortably with Armstrong on ‘My Sweet Hunk O’ Trash’ and sharing space on a second Armstrong track.

At this stage of her life Holiday experienced regular bouts of depression, pain and ill health. In 1947 she was sentenced to a long term in the Federal Reformatory, West Virginia, her arraignment coming, surprisingly, at the behest of her manager, Joe Glaser. The attendant publicity disastrously affected her confidence while drugs slowly weakened her physique. Running her own big band with second husband Joe Guy in 1945 had cost Holiday a sum reckoned to be $35, 000, and that blow was followed by the death of her mother. Another disappointment to Holiday’s professional aspirations was her failure to secure a film break, after pinning her hopes on the part she was offered in the jazz film, New Orleans (1946). Both Holiday and her idol, Armstrong, had roles involving a great deal of music-making - much of it left in the cutting room - but the purported jazz story turned out to be a nonsensical fantasy; and worse, Holiday and Armstrong were cast as servants. She was quoted later as saying: ‘I fought my whole life to keep from being somebody’s damn maid. It was a real drag... to end up as a make-believe maid’. The picture failed but gave her valuable international exposure, and jazz fanciers were pleased to see and hear sequences featuring Holiday, Armstrong, Kid Ory, Woody Herman and other musicians. For Holiday it was goodbye to the movies.

From the 50s on, Holiday and trouble seemed often to be inseparable, and as a consequence of her criminal record on drugs, Holiday’s cabaret card was withdrawn by the New York Police Department. This prevented her appearance at any venue where liquor was on sale, and effectively ruled out New York nightclubs. In her eyes it amounted to an absolute injustice and one that diminished her out-of-town earning capacity. She appeared in England during 1954 to great acclaim, and in 1956, her outspoken autobiography (written with William Dufty) brought increased fame, or notoriety. In 1957, the year she married Louis McKay, Holiday was still making good money but by the following year the drink and drugs crucially influenced her vocal control, and the ‘hoarsely eloquent voice’ had increased in hoarseness at the expense of the eloquence. However, one further segment of the Holiday discography deserves attention: the body of work on the Clef-Verve label (produced or master-minded by Norman Granz) which placed her in a jazz setting and encouraged her to shine when she and the small-group accompaniment felt right. These recordings (1952-57) include a number of satisfying performances, and several worthy of high praise. As for the final albums with the Ray Ellis Orchestra, they are, for the majority of jazz fanciers, a painfully acquired taste, although certain tracks, most notably ‘You’ve Changed’ on Lady In Satin are immensely moving on their own terms. It was clear that her voice was shot, yet the treble-laden croak she often lapses into is still somehow a brilliant and moving record and no Holiday collection should be without it.

Billie Holiday paid a second and last visit to Europe late in 1958, and came to London to make a television appearance on Granada’s Chelsea At Nine show in February 1959. Back in America, however, her condition worsened and at the end of May she was taken to hospital suffering from heart and liver disease. Harried still by the police (she had been arrested twice already for possession, in 1949 and 1956), and placed under arrest in her private room, she was charged with ‘possession’ and put under police guard - the final cruelty the system could inflict upon her. Thus the greatest of jazz singers died in humiliating circumstances at 3.10am on 17 July 1959 with $750 in notes taped to one leg - an advance on a series of promised articles. Even at the end squabbles had begun between a lawyer, virtually self-appointed, and her third husband, Louis McKay, whom she had married on 28 March 1957. She did not live to rejoice in the flood of books, biographical features, critical studies, magazine essays, album booklets, discographies, reference-book entries, chapters in innumerable jazz volumes, films and television documentaries which far exceed any form of recognition she experienced in her lifetime.

In defiance of her limited vocal range, Billie Holiday’s use of tonal variation and vibrato, her skill at jazz phrasing, and her unique approach to the lyrics of popular songs, were but some of the elements in the work of a truly original artist. Her clear diction, methods of manipulating pitch, improvising on a theme, the variety of emotional moods ranging from the joyously optimistic, flirtatious even, to the tough, defiant, proud, disillusioned and buoyantly barrelhouse, were not plucked out of the air, acquired without practice. Holiday paid her dues in a demanding milieu. That she survived at all is incredible; that she should become the greatest jazz singer there has ever been - virtually without predecessor or successor - borders on the miraculous. Today she is revered beyond her wildest imaginings in places which, in her lifetime, greeted her with painfully closed doors. Sadly, she would not have been surprised. As she wrote in her autobiography: ‘There’s no damn business like show business. You had to smile to keep from throwing up’. Any new student coming to popular music or Jazz will at some point be directed to the work of Holiday. Unquestionably they will be moved and probably they will be amazed.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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