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Holiday, Billie

Billie Holiday

Singer

Segregation Made Touring Difficult

Artistry Prevailed Over Inferior Production

Selected writings

Selected compositions

Selected discography

Sources

Billie Holiday is considered by many to be the greatest of all jazz singers. In a tragically abbreviated singing career that lasted less than three decades, her evocative phrasing and poignant delivery profoundly influenced vocalists who followed her. Although her warm, feathery voice inhabited a limited range, she used it like an accomplished jazz instrumentalist, stretching and condensing phrases in an ever-shifting dialogue with accompanying musicians. Famous for delivering lyrics a bit behind the beat, she alternately endowed them with sadness, sensuality, languor, and irony. Rarely singing blues, Holiday performed mostly popular material, communicating deep emotion by stripping down rather than dressing up words and lines.If you find a tune thats got something to do with you, you just feel it, and when you sing it, other people feel it, too, Holiday once explained. According to the Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music,She was the first and is perhaps still the greatest of jazz singers, if the essence of jazz singing is to make the familiar sound fresh, and to make any lyric come alive with personal meaning for the listener.

Holidays life was a study in hardship. Her parents married when she was three, but her musician father was seldom present and the couple soon divorced. Receiving little schooling as a child, Holiday scrubbed floors and ran errands for a nearby brothel so she could listen to idols Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith on the Victrola in its parlor. Brutally raped at ten, she was sent to a reformatory for seducing her adult attacker; at fourteen she was jailed for prostitution. Determined to find work as a dancer or singer in Harlem, Holiday moved to New York City in 1928 and landed her first job at Jerry Prestons Log Cabin, where her vocals moved customers to tears. Discovered in another Harlem club by jazz record producer John Hammond in 1932, she made her first recording a year later with Benny Goodmans orchestra. She began to record regularly for Columbia, usually under the direction of Teddy Wilson, backed by small studio bands comprised of the days best jazz sidemen. These included saxophonist and soulmate Lester Young, whose style approximated Holidays own; it was he who gave the pretty, dignified young singer the nickname Lady Day.

Segregation Made Touring Difficult

Intended largely for a black jukebox audience, the Wilson discsmostly silly and second-rate love songs that white singers had declined to recordwere quickly and cheaply made. But Holiday and company transformed them into jazz treasures, immediately appreciated by musicians, critics, and jazz afficianados, if not

For the Record

Born Eleanora Fagan, April 7, 1915, in Baltimore, MD; died of cardiac arrest, July 17, 1959, in New York City; daughter of Clarence Holiday (a jazz guitarist) and Sadie Fagan (a domestic); married James Monroe (marriage ended); married Louis McKay (separated).

Jazz singer. Began career in Harlem clubs, 1930; made recording debut with Benny Goodman ensemble, 1933; performed and recorded with various jazz bands, including those of Teddy Wilson, 1935-39, Count Basie, 1937, and Artie Shaw, 1938; solo recording artist and performer in theaters and nightclubs, 1940s and 1950s. Appeared in short film Rhapsody in Black, 1935, feature film New Orleans, 1946, and on television program Sound of Jazz, 1957.

Awards: Esquire silver award, 1945 and 1946, gold award, 1944 and 1947; Metronome poll winner, 1945-46.

the public at large. These hundred-odd songsdelivered in a light, bouyant styleare today considered among Holidays most significant work. Forgoing club engagements in 1937 to tour with Count Basies orchestra, Holiday went on to become one of the first black vocalists to be featured with a white band when she fronted for Artie Shaw a year later. Life on the road proved bitter for the singer, though; racial segregation made simple things like eating, sleeping, and going to the bathroom logistically difficult. Fed up when she could not enter one hotel through the front door with the rest of the Shaw orchestra, Holiday abandoned touring, returning to New York clubs and cabarets as a solo artist.

With Columbias permission Holiday recorded Strange Fruit, a controversial song about southern lynchings, for Commodore in 1939. It became a favorite of the interracial crowd for whom she performed at the Cafe Society, a Greenwich Village haunt of intellectuals and the political left. Holiday began to attract a popular following and indulged her taste for slow, melancholy songs about love gone bad, which communicated the hunger and despair that were starting to pervade her own life. Introduced to opium and heroin in the early forties by first husband James Monroe, she began her lifelong struggle with narcotics and alcohol addictionMonroe the first in a succession of men who would feed that addiction, squander her earnings, and physically abuse her. Jailed for a year on drug charges after a sensational trial in 1947, Holiday had her cabaret license revoked and was thus prohibited from performing in the clubs and nightspots that suited her best. Unable to stay drug-free as long as she remained involved with the music scene, she would face other arrests.

Artistry Prevailed Over Inferior Production

Holiday recorded for Decca from 1944 to 1950. Because the company sought to make her over into a popular singer, much of her material for that label was overarranged, dominated by strings, and largely ordinary. Still, Holidays artistry prevailed in songs like Aint Nobodys Business If I Do and Lover Man. Recording for Verve from 1952 to 1957, the singer frequently returned to the small group format that best fit her glimmering voice, but by then her instrument had begun to falter from years of abuse. Her desire and range dwindling, her voice scratchy and tired, Holiday still retained her unique timing and phrasing andwhen she wantedher ability to move listeners. Recording many American standards for Verve by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and Rodgers and Hart, her personal interpretations made them seem new again. While deemed too painful to listen to by some critics, Holidays later recordings are esteemed by others, who find the singers ability to communicate at its peak. In High Fidelity Steve Putterman, for instance, judged her Verve recordings devastating, because tonal beauty and emotional expressiveness worked inversely for Holiday: The more her pipes gave out, the more penetrating and affecting her delivery became.

Although industry insiders in the late 1950sFrank Sinatra for oneacknowledged her as unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years, when the singer succumbed in 1959 to cirrhosis of the liver, kidney trouble, and cardiac arrest at the age of forty-four, her passing was noted by the general public as much for her lurid personal life as for her musical contributions. Time has since diminished the glare of Holidays frailties and her musical gifts shine brighter than ever. Describing Holiday in a Down Beat review of one Verve collection as the woman who taught the world that the interaction and feeling of jazz musicians was the ultimate key to interpreting the great American song lyric, Will Friedwald remarked: I guess you cant inject so much real passion into a song without scaring the pants off some people. Billie Holiday on Verve, 1946-59 is essential music by the most haunting and hypnotic voiceindeed, soundin all of recorded music.

Selected writings

(With William Duffy) Lady Sings the Blues (autobiography), Doubleday, 1956.

Selected compositions

Wrote and co-wrote songs, including Fine and Mellow, God Bless the Child, and Dont Explain.

Selected discography

Holidays recordings can be divided into four segments: From 1933 to 1942 she largely recorded for Columbia (with some discs for Okeh, Vocalion, and Brunswick); from 1944 to 1950 she was on the Decca (now MCA) label; and from 1952 to 1957 she recorded for Verve. She also recorded two important sessions with Commodore in 1939 and 1944.

Singles

Did I Remember?/No Regrets, Vocalion/Okeh, 1936.

Billies Blues, Vocalion/Okeh, 1936.

Strange Fruit/Fine and Mellow, Commodore, 1939.

Loveless Love, Okeh, 1941.

God Bless the Child, Okeh, 1941.

Gloomy Sunday, Okeh, 1941.

Lover Man, Decca, 1944.

Reissues and compilations

Billie Holiday: The Golden Years (includes Riffin the Scotch, These Foolish Things, Pennies Prom Heaven, I Cant Give You Anything But Love, and When Youre Smiling), Columbia.

Lady Day, Columbia.

Billies Blues, Columbia.

Billie Holidays Greatest Hits, Columbia.

Lady in Satin, Columbia.

The Original Recordings, Columbia.

The Quintessential Billie Holiday, five volumes, Columbia.

The Billie Story, volume 1 (includes Dont Explain, Aint Nobodys Business If I Do, Lover Man, and Solitude), MCA, volumes 2 and 3, Columbia.

From the Original Decca Masters, RCA.

Ladys Decca Days, MCA.

The Best of Billie Holiday (includes Travelin Light, I Thought of You, and Willow Weep for Me), Verve.

All or Nothing at All, Verve.

The Billie Holiday Songbook, Verve.

Body and Soul, Verve.

The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve, 1946-1959, Verve.

The Essential Billie Holiday, Verve.

The First Verve Sessions, Verve.

Jazz at the Philharmonic, Verve.

Lady Sings the Blues, Verve.

The Last Recordings, Verve.

Songs for Distingue Lovers, Verve.

Stormy Blues, Verve.

Fine and Mellowllll Be Seeing You (includes Lover Come Back to Me, Embraceable You, and My Old Flame), Commodore.

Sources

Books

Chilton, John, Billies Blues, Stein & Day, 1975.

Feather, Leonard, The New Edition of the Ecyclopedia of Jazz, Horizon Press, 1960.

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, edited by Barry Kernfeld, Macmillan, 1988.

Penquin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Donald Clarke, Viking, 1989.

Simon, George T., and others, The Best of the Music Makers, Doubleday, 1979.

Tudor, Dean, Popular Music: An Annotated Guide to Recordings, Libraries Unlimited, 1983.

Periodicals

Down Beat, February 1986; July 1989.

Esquire, October 1989.

High Fidelity, January 1986; May 1987.

New York Herald Tribune Book Review, August 5, 1956.

People, June 1, 1987.

Stereo Review, March 1981.

Nancy Pear

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Holiday, Billie 1915-1959

Billie Holiday 1915-1959

Jazz singer

At a Glance

Artistry Prevailed Over Inferior Material

Selected writings

Compostions

Selected discography

Sources

Billie Holiday is considered by many to be the greatest of all jazz singers. In a tragically abbreviated singing career that lasted less than three decades, her evocative phrasing and poignant delivery profoundly influenced vocalists who followed her. Although her warm, feathery voice inhabited a limited range, she used it like an accomplished jazz instrumentalist, stretching and condensing phrases in an ever-shifting dialogue with accompanying musicians. Famous for delivering lyrics a bit behind the beat, she alternately endowed them with sadness, sensuality, languor, and irony. Rarely singing blues, Holiday performed mostly popular material, communicating deep emotion by stripping down rather than dressing up words and lines. If you find a tune thats got something to do with you, you just feel it, and when you sing it, other people feel it, too, Holiday once explained. According to the Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, She was the first and is perhaps still the greatest of jazz singers, if the essence of jazz singing is to make the familiar sound fresh, and to make any lyric come alive with personal meaning for the listener.

Holidays life was a study in hardship. Her parents married when she was three, but her musician father was seldom present and the couple soon divorced. Receiving little schooling as a child, Holiday scrubbed floors and ran errands for a nearby brothel so she could listen to idols Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith on the Victrola in its parlor. Brutally raped at ten, she was sent to a reformatory for seducing her adult attacker; at fourteen she was jailed for prostitution. Determined to find work as a dancer or singer in Harlem, Holiday moved to New York City in 1928 and landed her first job at Jerry Prestons Log Cabin, where her vocals moved customers to tears. Discovered in another Harlem club by jazz record producer John Hammond in 1932, she made her first recording a year later with Benny Goodmans orchestra. She began to record regularly for Columbia, usually under the direction of Teddy Wilson, backed by small studio bands comprised of the days best jazz sidemen. These included saxophonist and soulmate Lester Young, whose style approximated Holidays own; it was he who gave the pretty, dignified young singer the nickname Lady Day.

Intended largely for a black jukebox audience, the Wilson discsmostly silly and second-rate love songs that

At a Glance

Born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915, in Baltimore, MD; died of cardiac arrest July 1 7, 1959, in New York City; daughter of Clarence Holiday (a jazz guitarist) and Sadie Fagan (a domestic); married James Monroe (marriage ended); married Louis McKay (separated).

Jazz singer. Began career in Harlem clubs, 1930; made recording debut with Benny Goodman ensemble, 1933; performed and recorded with various jazz bands, including those of Teddy Wilson, 1935-39, Count Basie, 1937, and Artie Shaw, 1938; solo recording artist and performer in theaters and nightclubs, 1940s and 1950s. Appeared in short film Rhapsody in Black, 1935, and feature film New Orleans, 1946, and on television program Sound of Jazz, 1957.

Awards: Esquire silver award, 1945 and 1946, gold award, 1944 and 1947; Metronome poll winner, 1945-46.

white singers had declined to recordwere quickly and cheaply made. But Holiday and company transformed them into jazz treasures, immediately appreciated by musicians, critics, and jazz afficionados, if not the public at large. These hundred-odd songsdelivered in a light, buoyant styleare today considered among Holidays most significant work. Forgoing club engagements in 1937 to tour with Count Basies orchestra, Holiday went on to become one of the first black vocalists to be featured with a white band when she fronted for Artie Shaw a year later. Life on the road proved bitter for the singer, though; racial segregation made simple things like eating, sleeping, and going to the bathroom logistically difficult. Fed up when she could not enter one hotel through the front door with the rest of the Shaw orchestra, Holiday abandoned touring, returning to New York clubs and cabarets as a solo artist.

With Columbias permission Holiday recorded Strange Fruit, a controversial song about southern lynchings, for Commodore in 1939. It became a favorite of the interracial crowd for whom she performed at the Cafe Society, a Greenwich Village haunt of intellectuals and the political left. Holiday began to attract a popular following and indulged her taste for slow, melancholy songs about love gone bad, which communicated the hunger and despair that were starting to pervade her own life. Introduced to opium and heroin in the early forties by first husband James Monroe, she began her lifelong struggle with narcotics and alcohol addictionMonroe the first in a succession of men who would feed that addiction, squander her earnings, and physically abuse her. Jailed for a year on drug charges after a sensational trial in 1947, Holiday had her cabaret license revoked and was thus prohibited from performing in the clubs and nightspots that suited her best. Unable to stay drug-free as long as she remained involved with the music scene, she would face other arrests.

Artistry Prevailed Over Inferior Material

Holiday recorded for Decca from 1944 to 1950. Because the company sought to make her over into a popular singer, much of her material for that label was overarranged, dominated by strings, and largely ordinary. Still, Holidays artistry prevailed in songs like Aint Nobodys Business If I Do and Lover Man. Recording for Verve from 1952 to 1957, the singer frequently returned to the small group format that best fit her glimmering voice, but by then her instrument had begun to falter from years of abuse. Her desire and range dwindling, her voice scratchy and tired, Holiday still retained her unique timing and phrasing andwhen she wantedher ability to move listeners. Recording many American standards for Verve by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and Rodgers and Hart, her personal interpretations made them seem new again. While deemed too painful to listen to by some critics, Holidays later recordings are esteemed by others, who find the singers ability to communicate at its peak. In High Fidelity Steve Putterman, for instance, judged her Verve recordings devastating, because tonal beauty and emotional expressiveness worked inversely for Holiday: The more her pipes gave out, the more penetrating and affecting her delivery became.

Although industry insiders in the late 1950sFrank Sinatra for oneacknowledged her as unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years, when the singer succumbed in 1959 to cirrhosis of the liver, kidney trouble, and cardiac arrest at the age of forty-four, her passing was noted by the general public as much for her lurid personal life as for her musical contributions. Time has since diminished the glare of Holidays frailties and her musical gifts shine brighter than ever. Describing Holiday in a Down Beat review of one Verve collection as the woman who taught the world that the interaction and feeling of jazz musicians was the ultimate key to interpreting the great American song lyric, Will Friedwald remarked: I guess you cant inject so much real passion into a song without scaring the pants off some people. Billie Holiday on Verve, 1946-59 is essential music by the most haunting and hypnotic voiceindeed, soundin all of recorded music.

Selected writings

(With William Duffy) Lady Sings the Blues (autobiography), Doubleday, 1956.

Compostions

Wrote and co-wrote songs, including Fine and Mellow, God Bless the Child, and Dont Explain.

Selected discography

Holidays recordings can be divided into four segments: From 1933 to 1942 she largely recorded for Columbia (with some discs for Okeh, Vocalion, and Brunswick); from 1944 to 1950 she was on the Decca (now MCA) label; and from 1952 to 1957 she recorded for Verve. She also recorded two important sessions with Commodore in 1939 and 1944.

Singles

Did I Remember?/No Regrets, Vocalion/Okeh, 1936.

Billies Blues, Vocalion/Okeh, 1936.

Strange Fruit/Fine and Mellow, Commodore, 1939.

Loveless Love, Okeh, 1941.

God Bless the Child, Okeh, 1941.

Gloomy Sunday, Okeh, 1941.

Lover Man, Decca, 1944.

Reissues and compilations

Billie Holiday: The Golden Years (includes Riffin the Scotch, These Foolish Things, Pennies from Heaven, I Cant Give You Anything But Love, and When Youre Smiling), Columbia.

Lady Day, Columbia.

Billies Blues, Columbia.

Billie Holidays Greatest Hits, Columbia.

Lady in Satin, Columbia.

The Original Recordings, Columbia.

The Quintessential Billie Holiday, five volumes, Columbia.

The Billie Story, volume 1 (includes Dont Explain, Aint Nobodys Business If I Do, Lover Man, and Solitude), MCA, volumes 2 and 3, Columbia.

From the Original Decca Masters, RCA.

Ladys Decca Days, MCA.

The Best of Billie Holiday (includes Travelin Light, I Thought of You, and Willow Weep for Me), Verve.

All of Nothing at All, Verve.

The Billie Holiday Songbook, Verve.

Body and Soul, Verve.

The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve, 1946-1959, Verve.

The Essential Billie Holiday, Verve.

The First Verve Sessions, Verve.

Jazz at the Philharmonic, Verve.

Lady Sings the Blues, Verve.

The Last Recordings, Verve.

Songs for Distingue Lovers, Verve.

Stormy Blues, Verve.

Fine and Mellow/Ill Be Seeing You (includes Come Back to Me, Embraceable You, and My Old Flame), Commodore.

Sources

Books

Chilton, John, Billies Blues, Stein & Day, 1975.

Feather, Leonard, The New Edition of the Ecyclopedia of Jazz, Horizon Press, 1960.

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, edited by Barry Kernfeld, Macmillan, 1988.

Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Donald Clarke, Viking, 1989.

Simon, George T., and others, The Best of the Music Makers, Doubleday, 1979.

Tudor, Dean, Popular Music: An Annotated Guide to Recordings, Libraries Unlimited, 1983.

Periodicals

Down Beat, February 1986; July 1989.

Esquire, October 1989.

High Fidelity, January 1986; May 1987.

New York Herald Tribune Book Review, August 5, 1956.

People, June 1, 1987.

Stereo Review, March 1981.

Nancy Pear

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Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday (1915-1959) was a jazz vocalist with perhaps the most emotional depth of any singer in jazz history.

Billie Holiday's life was tragic. Born into out-of-wedlock poverty, she rose to a position of artistic pre-eminence in the world of jazz, but her personal life was one of constant turmoil and struggle. She fought seemingly endless wars—with drug addiction, with narcotics agents' harassment, with racism, with self-serving lovers, and with human parasites in and out of the music business. Withal, her vocal artistry was joyously, bittersweetly transcendant. Many serious listeners consider her the greatest jazz vocalist ever.

She was born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915, in Baltimore, Maryland. (The name "Billie" she later borrowed from one of her favorite movie actresses, Billie Dove.) At the time of Billie's birth, her mother, Sadie Fagan, was 13 years old, and her father, Clarence Holiday (later a jazz guitarist in Fletcher Henderson's band), was 15; they married each other three years later. As a child Billie ran errands for prostitutes in a nearby brothel, and as a reward they allowed her to listen to their Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith records.

In 1928 she went to New York City with her mother, who secured work as a housemaid, but the 1929 depression soon left her mother unemployed. In 1932 Billie tried out for a job as a nightclub dancer, and when she was rejected, she spontaneously auditioned for a singing job and was hired. For the next few years she sang in a succession of Harlem clubs until her career received a boost from impresario John Hammond, who induced Benny Goodman to use her on a record in 1933. But it was through a series of superb recordings made between 1935 and 1939 that her international reputation was established; those performances are jazz classics not only for Billie's singing but also for the outstanding ensemble and solo work of the accompanying all-star groups led by pianist Teddy Wilson. During the late 1930s she was also a big band vocalist, first with Count Basie (1937) and then with Artie Shaw (1938).

Her relationship with Basie's star tenor saxophonist Lester Young is the stuff of legend: they were great musical collaborators and great friends for life (their lives, incidentally, followed a parallel disastrous course). He named her "Lady Day, " and that title (or simply "Lady") became her jazz world sobriquet from the mid-1930s on; she in turn labeled him "Pres" (the "President of Tenor Saxophonists"). Their musical symbiosis, especially on the 1935-1939 small-group recordings, is one of the miracles of jazz; on "This Year's Kisses, " "He's Funny That Way, " "A Sailboat in the Moonlight, " "Me, Myself and I, " "Mean to Me, " and a raft of other tunes tenor saxophone and voice interweave so sympathetically that they sound as if they're poured from the same bottle. After the late 1930s they rarely recorded together, but to the end remained soulmates. (They died the same year.) Billie's career reached its zenith in the very late 1930s. In 1938 she worked a long engagement at Cafe Society; the following year she joined Benny Goodman on a radio broadcast; she was regularly working the big New York theaters and the famous 52nd Street clubs, including Kelly's Stables and the Onyx Club—all in addition to her recording successes. Two songs of the period are noteworthy: the first, "Strange Fruit, " with a haunting lyric by Lewis Allan to which Billie contributed the music, is a graphic depiction of a lynching; her record company, Columbia, considered it too inflammatory and refused to issue it, but it was finally released by a small record company (Commodore) in 1939 and, ironically, became a big money-maker because of the tune on the record's other side, "Fine and Mellow, " a blues written by Billie. Another tune always associated with her was "Gloomy Sunday, " which was expressive of such deep despair that it was for a time barred from the airwaves (the contention was that it was inducive to suicide).

By the mid-1940s Billie had been arrested many times for narcotics violations, and after one arrest in 1947, at her own request, was placed for a year and a day in a federal rehabilitation center at Alderson, West Virginia. Just ten days after being released she gave a concert at Carnegie Hall, but thenceforth was barred by New York City police licensing laws from working in any place that served liquor. The absence of a cabaret card in effect meant that she could never again appear in a New York nightclub.

Neither of her husbands—trumpeter Joe Guy (whom she divorced in the 1940s) nor Louis McKay (who survived her)—seemed able or inclined to save Billie from herself. By the 1950s alcohol and marijuana had taken a toll; her voice grew unnaturally deep and grainy and occasionally cracked during performance. Nevertheless, her singing was sustained by her highly individual style, the intimacy she projected, and her special way with a lyric. In 1954 she toured Europe to wide acclaim, and in 1958 she made a memorable appearance in the television special "The Sound of Jazz, " surrounded by an all-star ensemble which included the three reigning tenor saxophone kings, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, and her beloved "Pres."

Billie made her final public appearance in a concert at the Phoenix Theatre, New York City, on May 25, 1959. She died in Metropolitan Hospital, New York City, on July 17, 1959, of "congestion of the lungs complicated by heart failure"; she had at the time of her death been under arrest in her hospital bed for over a month for illegal possession of drugs.

An elegiac poem written by Frank O'Hara, "The Day Lady Died" (1964), ends" … she whispered a song along the keyboard/ … and everyone and I stopped breathing"— lines that are evocative of the pindrop silence this extraordinary singer was able to command. Tall, sensually exotic, with a swatch of gardenias in her hair, she sang with her head tilted jauntily back and her fingers snapping to the beat; audiences unfailingly responded with hushed reverence.

Her early small-group recordings have been reissued in several boxed sets under the general title of "Billie Holiday: The Golden Years"; her best later work is to be found in "The First Verve Sessions" recorded in 1952 and 1954 with a Jazz at the Philharmonic group of all-stars that included trumpeter Charlie Shavers, tenor saxophonist Flip Phillips, pianist Oscar Peterson, and guitarist Barney Kessel.

Further Reading

Her autobiography, written in collaboration with William Dufty, Lady Sings the Blues (1956), is the most revealing work on her, but the 1973 movie version, bearing the same title, is sadly inaccurate. John Chilton's Billie's Blues (1975) is an excellent survey of her life and work in the recording years (that is, from 1933 to 1959). □

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Holiday, Billie

Billie Holiday

Born: April 7, 1915
Baltimore, Maryland
Died: July 17, 1959
New York, New York

African American jazz singer

Billie Holiday was an African American jazz vocalist who perhaps showed the most expression of feeling of any singer in jazz history.

Early life

Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915, in Baltimore, Maryland. (She borrowed the name "Billie" from one of her favorite movie actresses, Billie Dove.) Born to an unwed teenage mother, Sadie Fagan, Holiday's childhood was one of poverty. Her father, Clarence Holiday (later a jazz guitarist) married Sadie three years later. He never lived with the family, choosing his musical career over them. As a child Billie started working very young, running errands and cleaning a house of prostitution's (a place where sexual acts are traded for money) marble stoop. It was here that she first heard Louis Armstrong (19001971) and Bessie Smith (18941937) records through the open windows.

New York City

In 1928 Holiday moved to New York City with her mother, who began work as a housemaid, but the 1929 depression (time of low economic conditions with high rates of unemployment) soon left her mother without work. In 1932 Holiday auditioned for a singing job and was hired. For the next few years she sang in Harlem clubs, then her career took off when Benny Goodman (19011986) used her on a record. But it was through a series of recordings made between 1935 and 1939 that her international reputation was established. During the late 1930s she was also a big band vocalist, first with Count Basie (19041984) in 1937 and then with Artie Shaw (1910) in 1938.

Holiday's relationship with Basie's star tenor saxophonist Lester Young (19091959) is the stuff of legend. They were great musical coworkers and great friends for life. Young named her "Lady Day" (or simply "Lady"), and that title became her jazz world name from the mid-1930s on. She in turn labeled him "Pres" (the "President of Tenor Saxophonists").

Many successful tunes were recorded, interweaving Young's tenor saxophone with Holiday's voice. After the late 1930s they rarely recorded together, but to the end they remained soul mates. Holiday's career reached its peak in the late 1930s. In 1938 she worked a long engagement at Cafe Society. The following year she joined Benny Goodman on a radio broadcast.

Two songs of the period are noteworthy. The first, "Strange Fruit," is a detailed description of a lynching (an unjust killing because of race). Columbia record company considered it too inflammatory (exciting to the senses) and refused to issue it. A small record company, Commodore, finally released it in 1939. It became a big money-maker because of the tune on the record's other side, "Fine and Mellow," a blues song written by Holiday. Another tune always associated with her is "Gloomy Sunday," which spoke of such deep despair (misery) that it was kept off the airwaves for a time.

Personal tragedies

By the mid-1940s Holiday had been arrested many times for illegal drug use. After one arrest, at her own request, she was placed in a federal rehabilitation (having to do with recovery from drug or alcohol abuse) center at Alderson, West Virginia, for a year and a day. Just ten days after being released she gave a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Neither Holiday's first husband, Joe Guy, a jazz guitarist who she divorced, or Louis McKay, who survived her, seemed able to save Holiday from herself. By the 1950s alcohol and marijuana had strained her voice, so that it was unnaturally deep and grainy and occasionally cracked during performances. Nevertheless, her singing was sustained by her highly individual style, the familiarity she projected, and her special way with the words of a song.

Holiday made her final public appearance in a concert at the Phoenix Theatre in New York City on May 25, 1959. She died in Metropolitan Hospital in New York City on July 17, 1959, of "congestion of the lungs complicated by heart failure." At the time of her death she had been under arrest in her hospital bed for illegal possession of drugs.

Holiday's early small-group recordings have been rereleased in several boxed sets under the general title Billie Holiday: The Golden Years. Her best later work is to be found in The First Verve Sessions, recorded in 1952 and 1954.

On March 6, 2000, Holiday was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the Early Influences category. That category includes artists whose music predates rock and roll, but who inspired and had a strong effect on rock and roll music.

For More Information

Chilton, John. Billie's Blues. New York: Stein and Day, 1975.

Clarke, Donald. Wishing on the Moon. New York: Viking, 1994.

Holiday, Billie, and William Dufty. Lady Sings the Blues. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956.

Nicholson, Stuart. Billie Holiday. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1995.

O'Meally, Robert G. Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday. NewYork: Arcade Publishers, 1991.

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Holiday, Billie

Billie Holiday, 1915–59, American singer, b. Baltimore. Her original name was Eleanora Fagan. She began singing professionally in 1930, and after performing with numerous bands—especially those of Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Count Basie, and Artie Shaw—she embarked in 1940 on a career of solo appearances in nightclubs and theaters. Her highly personal approach to a song, her individual phrasing and intonation, and the often rough but highly emotional quality of her voice soon earned her a supreme position among modern jazz singers. Although she was financially successful, she suffered many personal disasters, complicated by the drug addiction that she could not overcome and that eventually destroyed her career and hastened her death. She was also known as Lady Day.

See her sometimes factually inaccurate autobiography (1956); biographies by D. Clarke (1994) and S. Nicholson (1995); D. Margolick, Strange Fruit (2000).

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Holiday, Billie

Holiday, Billie (1915–59) US blues and jazz singer, nicknamed Lady Day. She became famous in the 1930s with the bands of Count Basie and Artie Shaw. Her melancholic renditions of “My Man, Mean to Me” (1937) and “God Bless the Child” (1941) are legendary in the history of jazz.

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