Holiday, Billie (1915-1959)

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Holiday, Billie (1915-1959)

Billie Holiday, certainly one of the foremost American song stylists and often called the greatest American jazz singer, was born Eleanora Harris on April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia. After her birth to Sadie Harris, the facts about Billie are often in dispute, due in large part to Billie's own tendency to spin tales about her life that have small kernels of truth but cannot be accepted wholesale as fact. The truth about her life is as interesting, if not more so, than her invention—recent biographers benefitted from extensive oral interviews done for a projected biography by Linda Kuehl (who died before completing it).

Listening to her recordings is a parallel version of her tumultuous and heartfelt life, one that expresses her beauty and soulfulness—however, as writer Hetty Jones warns, "Sometimes you are afraid to listen to this lady." Her short life was consumed by trouble: the wrong men, alcohol, heroin, racism, and just plain hard times, yet her personality was so winning that it shone through her vocals and she was well loved by her friends. What is certain is that the singer gave as good as she got; alternately tough-minded and intensely vulnerable, she helped create the mystique of Lady Day and nurtured it throughout her career.

Her "autobiography," Lady Sings the Blues (written by New York Post writer William Dufty), is the prime source for the Billie Holiday mythology; she bragged that she had never even read it, yet enough of her salty humor and dramatic timing made it into the book to capture an audience that was more than ready to accept it. What was painful to Billie was often transformed in the narrative; the circumstances of her birth being a good example. Her mother, Sadie, told Billie her father was Clarence Holiday, a talented guitarist best known for his work with Fletcher Henderson's band, and Billie states in the book that "my mother and father were just a couple of kids when they got married." They were never married nor lived together; Clarence Holiday acknowledged Eleanora, though their relationship was strained and awkward as he was married to another woman and disliked having his daughter around as evidence of his past.

Growing up in Fell's Point, a tough waterfront neighborhood in Baltimore, Eleanora experienced a brief, brutal childhood—her mother, forced to take work in New York as a maid, left her daughter in the care of abusive relatives. Only her great-grandmother (who she recalls with special fondness in Lady) was a source of solace to the little girl. Picked up for truancy, she was sent to the House of Good Shepherd for Colored Girls, a Catholic residential facility, where she was baptized and found some stability after a succession of "stepfathers" and being shunted around. Her recollections of Good Shepherd were mixed; she was glad to escape the harsh institution. Sadie wasn't able to handle her daughter, having enough problems of her own, and the breaking point came when the eleven-year-old girl was raped by a neighbor. She was returned to Good Shepherd, but stayed only a short while before returning home to Sadie.

The seminal event of young Eleanora's life was the discovery of jazz—she absorbed her first musical education listening to her lifelong idol, Louis Armstrong, on a Victrola in a neighborhood brothel. "I heard a record by, as we call him, Pops, and it was called 'West End Blues' and … he sang 'Ooh be doo,' and I would wonder why he didn't sing any words and he had the most beautiful feeling." She always credited Louis Armstrong as her major influence as a singer, although she was certainly influenced by Bessie Smith and others; Billie loved Armstrong and performed with him on a number of occasions.

Now fifteen, Eleanora became a prostitute in madam Alice Dean's house, and soon was declared "out of control" by her guardian. Her exodus from Baltimore marked a turning point in her life when she made her way to New York to join her mother, who was employed as a maid. She was picked up in a Harlem vice raid along with Sadie, charged with prostitution and spent a short time in a workhouse. After her discharge she found could make a good living as a singer in clubs, and in juke joints she perfected her craft. At this time she adopted her father's surname and chose "Billie" after silent film actress Billie Dove. She loved the life, and she also took to marijuana, a commonplace in the music world—aficionados were called "vipers" and "sticks" were cheap and easy to find. Billie had a prodigious tolerance for all substances: alcohol, marijuana, and finally, heroin. It would be a mistake to focus on Billie Holiday as a singer ruined by addictions, yet there is no doubt her appetites shortened her life and harmed her voice. She was part of a culture that accepted drugs easily—one critic called them "an occupational hazard."

The discovery of Billie Holiday has been claimed by more than one person, and she herself told a story about auditioning as a dancer at "Pod and Jerry's" and being hired as a singer which was more fancy than fact. What is true is that white jazz writer and producer John Hammond did hear her sing in early 1933 and was astonished by what he heard, but it wasn't until November of that year that he was finally able to schedule a recording session and later signed her for Columbia Records. The next year she met saxophonist Lester Young, her soul mate musically and personally: their friendship was one of Billie's deepest and most enduring relationships. It was Young who named her "Lady Day" (the "Day" from Holiday) and christened Sadie, "Duchess" when he lived with them after he first came to New York. Billie called him "Prez" (short for "President" since he was "the greatest" in her opinion) and their careers would intertwine over the years with memorable recordings to prove it. Billie liked and supported other female singers: she and Ella Fitzgerald admired each other; she also befriended the young Lena Horne.

Billie may have sung the blues, but she was primarily a jazz singer and one of the best interpreters of pop music ever. She disliked the title of her autobiography for that reason (the publisher chose it). In the words of the musicians who almost universally admired her: "She had ears," meaning she understood the music thoroughly, earning the respect of Count Basie, Artie Shaw, and many others. Duke Ellington said Billie was the "coolest." Her signature song, "Strange Fruit" is indescribably wrenching; an indictment of lynching so potent it silenced audiences whenever she performed it—with "Strange Fruit" her artistry confronted the fashionable jazz world of Cafe Society with the brutal reality of racism that black musicians knew first hand. Lillian Smith told Billie the song inspired her to write her novel of the same name. Touring the South with Artie Shaw's band, Billie felt the force of Jim Crow. In her autobiography she stated, "It got to the point where I hardly ever ate, slept, or went to the bathroom without having a major NAACP-type production."

A song Billie Holiday made her own, "The Man I Love," along with "T'ain't Nobody's Business If I Do," and especially, "My Man" have been often held up as an example of how Lady Day felt about the men in her life. Billie was often exploited and abused by many people she trusted, but her choices reflected her deep ambivalence about love, and a measure of masochism. Musicians who worked with her loved her and deplored her boyfriends. One, Bobby Tucker, a favorite accompanist, called them "pimps," because they "lived off her," particularly the brutal John Levy and husband Louis McKay, who managed the singer by facilitating her drug habit and draining her financial resources. Hospitalized several times and jailed at Alderson Federal Reformatory in 1947, Holiday was penalized for her high-profile troubles—she lost her New York City Cabaret license, which paradoxically opened up venues like Carnegie Hall (where she performed several legendary concerts in 1948) but severely restricted her ability to make her living.

The 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues, a showcase for singer Diana Ross crafted for her by Berry Gordy as a new venue for Motown, distorted Billie Holiday's life story and created a love story from Louis McKay's viewpoint (he served as a technical advisor on the picture). Despite Ross's strong performance, the film failed to create a convincing portrait and was critically panned. It did generate new interest in Billie Holiday and her recordings, which translated into such diverse appreciations of Holiday such as Alice Adams's novel Listening to Billie and an Australian film, Billy's Holiday (a fantasy wherein a male fan discovers he can sing like his favorite singer). Images of Holiday are ubiquitous on such items as t-shirts and posters: the "Lady with the Gardenia" (the flower she often wore in her hair), dressed to kill in elegant gowns, is an icon that has not only endured but has become ever more popular, much as Marilyn Monroe or Elvis has. In her discography, the Verve recordings (beginning in 1946) are often touted as her greatest, with her voice at its mature best and her spirit radiant in songs she made standards: "All of Me," "Autumn in New York," "Don't Explain" and the song she coauthored, "God Bless the Child," best reflects Billie's essential personality—an artist, first and foremost. A last recording, the controversial "Lady in Satin" shows the singer diminished but still innovating, working with a lush orchestral accompaniment.

Her death on July 17, 1959 followed a long, sad decline precipitated by the death of Sadie and accelerated by her addiction. Hospitalized in New York in May, 1959, she was arrested for possession of narcotics in her hospital bed, a last indignity. In a 1956 interview, Billie told Mike Wallace why she thought jazz greats die young: "we try to live a hundred days in one day, and we try to please so many people. Like myself, I want to bend this note, bend that note, sing this way, sing that way, and get all the feeling, eat all the good foods, and travel all over in one day, and you can't do it."

A legendary stylist, Frank Sinatra, stated: "Billie Holiday was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me." Her friend, writer Leonard Feather, said of Billie that "her voice was the voice of living intensity, of soul in the true sense of that greatly abused word. As a human being, she was sweet, sour, kind, mean, generous, profane, lovable, and impossible, and nobody who knew her expects to see anyone quite like her ever again."

—Mary Hess

Further Reading:

Baraka, Imiri. Black Music. New York, William Morrow, 1968.

Chilton, John. Billie's Blues: The True Story of the Immortal Billie Holiday. London, Quartet Books, 1975.

Clarke, Donald. Wishing on the Moon: The Life and Times of Billie Holiday. New York, Viking Press, 1994.

Davis, Angela. Blues Legacies & Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith & Billie Holiday. New York, Pantheon, 1998.

De Veaux, Alexis. Don't Explain: A Song of Billie Holiday. New York, Harper and Row, 1990.

Gourse, Leslie. The Billie Holiday Companion: Seven Decades of Commentary. New York, Schirmer Books, 1997.

——. Louis' Children: American Jazz Singers. New York, Quill, 1984.

Holiday, Billie, with William Dufty. Lady Sings the Blues. New York, Doubleday, 1956.

James, Burnett. Billie Holiday. New York, Hippocrene, 1984.

Jones, Hetty. Big Star Fallin' Mama: Five Women in Black Music. New York, Viking Press, 1997.

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

O'Meally, Robert. Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday. New York, Little Brown, 1991.

Vail, Ken. Lady Day's Diary: The Life of Billie Holiday 1937-1959. Chessington, United Kingdom, Castle Communications, 1996.

White, John. Billie Holiday. New York, Universe Books, 1987.