Holiday, Billie (Elinore Harris)

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Holiday, Billie (Elinore Harris)

Holiday, Billie (Elinore Harris), definitive jazz singer; b. Philadelphia, Pa., April 7, 1915; d. N.Y., July 17, 1959. Holiday was lauded as a vocalist who brought a jazz instrumentalist’s sensibility to singing; like a jazz musician, she engaged in sophisticated melodic improvisation, varying her timing and phrasing to create unique interpretations of songs. Her voice had a limited range but a distinctive, light timbre that, combined with her improvisational skills and her tendency—especially in the second half of her career—to focus on torch songs and ballads, gave her work a tremendous emotional appeal. She had a profound influence on a generation of singers that included Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee. Her most memorable recordings include “Strange Fruit,” “God Bless the Child,” and “Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?).”

Holiday was the illegitimate child of Sarah Julia Harris, a 19-year-old domestic, and, probably, 16-year-old Clarence Earnest Holiday (actually, Holliday), who became a professional banjo player and guitarist. She had a poor, difficult childhood in Baltimore; her mother frequently traveled north to work and she was left with relatives and friends. She was twice committed to a reformatory, once at age nine for truancy and a second time after she was raped at age 11. By 1928 she had begun to sing in public. In 1929 she joined her mother in N.Y., where she engaged in prostitution and as a result spent several months incarcerated. By the early 1930s she had begun to make her living as a singer. In the spring of 1933 she was seen in a Harlem speakeasy by record producer John Hammond, who arranged her first recording session as featured vocalist in a studio band led by Benny Goodman. On Nov. 27, 1933, they recorded “Your Mother’s Son-In-Law” (music by Alberta Nichols, lyrics by Mann Holiner), released by Columbia Records. Their second recording, “Riffin’ the Scotch” (music by Dick McDonough, Goodman, and Ford Lee “Buck” Washington, lyrics by Johnny Mercer), made on Dec. 18, 1933, became a hit in January 1934.

Holiday continued to appear in Harlem nightclubs during the mid-1930s. She made her theater debut at the Apollo on Nov. 23, 1934. On July 2, 1935, she began a five-year series of recordings as the vocalist in a studio orchestra led by pianist Teddy Wilson for the Brunswick label of the American Record Company (ARC), which had acquired Columbia. In September she appeared in the short film Symphony in Black with Duke Ellington and His Orch. and performed at the Famous Door, her first N.Y. club appearance outside Harlem, and in Montreal, her first out-of-town engagement. She was then a part of the nightclub revue Stars over Broadway (N.Y., Oct. 29, 1935) at Connie’s Inn Downtown. Her recording with Wilson of “Twenty-Four Hours a Day” (music by James F. Hanley, lyrics by Arthur Swanstrom) entered the hit parade in November and remained in the chart for six weeks.

Holiday performed briefly as a featured vocalist for the orchestras of Jimmie Lunceford, in March, and Fletcher Henderson, in June 1936. Her success on records caused ARC to sign her to a contract, and she made her first recordings under her own name on July 10 for ARC’s Vocalion label while continuing to record with Wilson on Brunswick. The Wilson-Holiday recording of “Who Loves You?” (music by J. Fred Coots, lyrics by Benny Davis) spent five weeks in the hit parade starting in October. Holiday joined the Count Basie band in March 1937, though she continued to make recordings on her own and with Wilson. “Carelessly” (music by Norman Ellis, lyrics by Charles and Nick Kenny), recorded with Wilson, entered the hit parade in April and rose to #1 in May; also in May, the Wilson-Holiday recording of “There’s a Lull in My Life” (music by Harry Warren, lyrics by Mack Gordon) entered the chart for a nine-week run.

Holiday left Basie in February 1938; the following month she joined Artie Shaw’s orchestra. In July, “I’m Gonna Lock My Heart” (music by Terry Shand, lyrics by Jimmy Eaton) by Billie Holiday and Her Orch. entered the hit parade for a run of eight weeks. Holiday left Shaw in November and began a celebrated seven-month engagement at the Greenwich Village nightclub Café Society on Dec. 30. During this run, she introduced “Strange Fruit” (music and lyrics by Lewis Allan, a pseudonym for Abel Meeropol), a song describing the lynchings of African-Americans in the South. Vocalion declined to record the song but allowed her to cut it for the independent Commodore label, which she did on April 20, 1939; it became a signature song for her and the recording was selected for the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978.

Holiday’s residency at Café Society established her as a popular nightclub performer, and she continued to appear regularly, primarily in clubs in N.Y., with occasional theater engagements and appearances in such major cities as Chicago and L.A., until 1947. On May 9, 1941, she recorded “God Bless the Child” (music and lyrics by Arthur Herzog Jr. and Holiday), which became a standard; the recording was selected for the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1976. She married James Norman Monroe Jr. on Aug. 25, 1941. They separated in 1942 when Monroe was imprisoned on a drug charge but remained married until 1957.

In the fall of 1942, Capitol Records released “Trav’lin’ Light” (music by Jimmy Mundy and Trummy Young, lyrics by Johnny Mercer) by Paul Whiteman and His Orch., with vocals credited to “Lady Day,” Holiday’s nickname, for contractual reasons. The record topped the R&B charts in November. Holiday again recorded for Commodore in 1943 and 1944 and was signed to Decca Records in August 1944. Her first session for the label produced “Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?)” (music and lyrics by Jimmy Davis, Roger “Ram” Ramirez, and Jimmy Sherman), which made the Top Ten of the R&B chart in May 1945 and was selected for the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1989.

In the spring of 1945, Holiday claimed to have divorced her husband and married trumpeter Joseph Luke Guy. Though this was not true, she was living with Guy as his common-law wife, and the couple organized a big band that toured during the second half of the year. Holiday had a featured role in the motion picture New Orleans, which opened in April 1947; it was her only feature film appearance. On May 27, 1947, she was convicted of possession of heroin and imprisoned until March 16, 1948. She never overcame her addiction and was arrested on drug charges several more times. Her 1947 conviction meant that she was effectively barred from performing in N.Y. nightclubs, and she turned to concert and theater appearances in the city—notably at Carnegie Hall on March 27, 1948, and in the short-lived revue Holiday on Broadway (N.Y., April 27, 1948)—and to club dates around the country

In 1948, Holiday became involved with club owner John R. Levy, who became her manager and common-law husband. They split up in late 1950, and Holiday took up with automotive worker Louis McKay in 1951. He also lived with her and managed her, and they finally married on March 28, 1957, but then separated later that year. Holiday left Decca in 1950, briefly recorded for the small independent Aladdin label in 1951, and in 1952 signed with record executive Norman Granz, who licensed her first album with him, Billie Holiday Sings, to Mercury Records, then issued her recordings through 1957 on his own Clef and Verve labels.

Holiday toured Europe in 1954 and again in 1958; she appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954 and again in 1957; and she performed at the first Monterey Jazz Festival in 1958. In August 1956 her sensationalized, ghost-written autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, was published. Portions of it were read during her Nov. 10, 1956, concert at Carnegie Hall. In December 1957 she re-signed to Columbia Records, making one album, Lady in Satin, then moved to MGM Records for her final album, Billie Holiday, in 1959. She made her final appearance at the Phoenix Theatre in N.Y. on May 25, 1959. Days later she collapsed, suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, and was hospitalized. She died at 44 of congestion of the lungs complicated by heart failure. Holiday was nominated for a 1961 Grammy Award for Best Solo Vocal Performance, Female, for the album The Essential Billie Holiday (Carnegie Hall Concert), drawn from her 1956 performance. The film biography Lady Sings the Blues opened in the fall of 1972; it became a box office hit, and the soundtrack album, featuring Holiday’s songs sung by Diana Ross, hit #1 in the spring of 1973. Several Holiday reissue albums also reached the charts at this time: Decca’s The Billie Holiday Story; Atlantic’s Strange Fruit, containing Commodore recordings; and Columbia’s The Original Recordings. Holiday was nominated for a 1973 Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Recording for the Paramount album Songs & Conversations, drawn from an August 1955 rehearsal, and the Time-Life album Billie Holiday (Giants of Jazz) won the 1979 Grammy Award for Best Historical Reissue. In 1991 the 75th anniversary of Holiday’s birth was marked by three multi-CD reissues: Columbia/Legacy’s The Legacy, 1933-59; MCA/GRP’s The Complete Decca Recordings, 1944-50; and Verve’s Lady in Autumn: The Best of the Verve Years. Forty years after her death, most of Holiday’s recordings remained in print.


Lady Sings the Blues (1956); Songs for Distingue Lovers (1957); Embraceable You (1957); Lady in Satin (1958); Masters of Jazz, Vol. Ill (1987); The Quintessential B. H. (nine volumes; 1987-91); At Storyville (1988); Billies Blues (1988); Last Recordings (1988); Fine and Mellow (1990); The Complete Decca Recordings: 1944-50 (1991); Lady in Autumn: The Best of the Verve Years (1991); Billie’s Best (1992); 16 Most Requested Songs (1993); Verve Jazz Masters 12 (1994); First Issue: The Great American Songbook (1994); The Complete B. H. on Verve: 1945-49 (1995); Love Songs (1996); Ultimate B. H. (1997); The Complete Commodore Recordings (1997); Greatest Hits (1998); Cocktail Hour: B. H. (1999).


With W. Dufty, Lady Sings the Blues (Garden City, N.J., 1956).


D. Bakker, B. and Teddy on Microgroove, 1932-44 (Alphen aan de Rijn, Netherlands, 1975); J. Chilton, B.’s Blues: The B. H. Story, 1933-59 (N.Y., 1975); J. Millar, Born to Sing: A Discography of B. H. (Copenhagen, 1979); A. De Veaux, Don’t Explain: A Song ofB. H. (N.Y., 1980); J. Burnett, B. H. (N.Y., 1984); B. James, B. H. (Tunbridge Wells, England, 1984); M.-E. Nabe, L’Âme De B. H. (Paris, 1986); J. White, B. H: Her Life and Times (N.Y., 1987); B. Kliment, B. H (N.Y., 1990); R. O’Meally, Lady Day: The Many Faces of B. H (N.Y., 1991); D. Clarke, Wishing on the Moon: The Life and Times of B. H. (London, 1994); S. Nicholson, B. H (London, 1995); L. Gourse, ed., The B. H. Companion: Seven Decades of Commentary (N.Y., 1997).

—William Ruhlmann

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Holiday, Billie (Elinore Harris)

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