Billy Holiday: “Lady Sings the Blues”
Billie Holiday used drugs all her life. I do not believe she would be the same musician without it, just the same as if she were born a rich white kid! Her music comes from her experiences and her state of mind, which in most cases (as she seems to show in “Lady Sings the Blues”) to be filled with pain and experience…she seems road weary if you will. Being a professional musician back then was a rough, poor, drugged experience. The music of the era seems to reflect this. As far as her musical technical ability, so what! She’s great! She has more style in her fingernail than many other musicians that have the ability.
Portrait from Down Beat magazine, ca. February 1947
Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan; April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959) was an American jazz singer and songwriter. Nicknamed “Lady Day” by her friend and musical partner Lester Young, Holiday had 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.
Biography – Early life and education
Billie Holiday was born as Eleanora Fagan, on April 7, 1915, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Sarah Julia “Sadie” Fagan. Her father, Clarence Holiday, a musician, did not marry or live with her mother. Not long after Holiday’s birth, her father left her and her mother to pursue a career as a jazz guitarist Fagan had moved to Philadelphia at the age of nineteen, after being ejected from her parents’ home in Sandtown-Winchester, Baltimore for becoming pregnant. With no support from her parents, Holiday’s mother arranged for the young Holiday to stay with her older married half sister, Eva Miller, who lived in Baltimore. Holiday, who was of African American ancestry, was also said to have had Irish ancestors through her mother’s mixed heritage.
Billie Holiday had a difficult childhood. Her mother often took what were then known as “transportation jobs”, serving on passenger railroads. Holiday was left to be raised largely by Eva Miller’s mother-in-law, Martha Miller, and suffered from her mother’s absences and leaving her in others’ care for much of the first ten years of her life. Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, first published in 1956, was sketchy about details of her early life, but much was confirmed by Stuart Nicholson in his 1995 biography of the singer.
Some historians have disputed Holiday’s paternity, as a copy of her birth certificate in the Baltimore archives lists the father as “Frank DeViese”. Other historians consider this an anomaly, probably inserted by a hospital or government worker. Frank DeViese lived in Philadelphia and Sadie Harris may have known him through her work.
Sadie Harris, then known as Sadie Fagan, married Philip Gough, but the marriage was over in two years. Holiday was left with Martha Miller again while her mother took more transportation jobs. Holiday frequently skipped school and her truancy resulted in her being brought before the juvenile court on January 5, 1925 when she was not yet 10. She was sent to The House of the Good Shepherd, a Catholic reform school. She was baptized there on March 19, 1925 and after nine months in care, was “paroled” on October 3, 1925 to her mother, who had opened a restaurant called the East Side Grill, where she and Holiday worked long hours. By the age of 11, the girl had dropped out of school.
Holiday’s mother returned to their home on December 24, 1926, to discover a neighbor, Wilbur Rich, raping her. Rich was arrested. Officials placed the girl at the House of the Good Shepherd in protective custody as a state witness in the rape case. Holiday was released in February 1927, nearly twelve. She found a job running errands in a brothel. During this time, Holiday first heard the records of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. By the end of 1928, Holiday’s mother decided to try her luck in Harlem, New York and left Holiday again with Martha Miller.
By early 1929, Holiday joined her mother in Harlem. Their landlady was a sharply dressed woman named Florence Williams, who ran a brothel at 151 West 140th Street. Holiday’s mother became a prostitute and, within a matter of days of arriving in New York, Holiday, who had not yet turned fourteen, also became a prostitute at $5 a client. On May 2, 1929, the house was raided, and Holiday and her mother were sent to prison. After spending some time in a workhouse, her mother was released in July, followed by Holiday in October, at the age of 14.
In Harlem she started singing in various night clubs. Holiday took her professional pseudonym from Billie Dove, an actress she admired, and the musician Clarence Holiday, her probable father. At the outset of her career, she spelled her last name “Halliday,” the birth-surname of her father, but eventually changed it to “Holiday,” his performing name. The young singer teamed up with a neighbor, tenor sax player Kenneth Hollan. From 1929 to 1931, they were a team, performing at clubs such as the Grey Dawn, Pod’s and Jerry’s on 133rd Street, and the Brooklyn Elks’ Club. Benny Goodmanrecalled hearing Holiday in 1931 at The Bright Spot. As her reputation grew, Holiday played at many clubs, including Mexico’s and The Alhambra Bar and Grill where Charles Linton, a vocalist who later worked with Chick Webb, first met her. It was also during this period that she connected with her father, who was playing with Fletcher Henderson‘s band.
By the end of 1932 at the age of 17, Billie Holiday replaced the singer Monette Moore at a club called Covan’s on West 132nd Street. The producer John Hammond, who loved Monette Moore’s singing and had come to hear her, first heard Holiday in early 1933. Hammond arranged for Holiday to make her recording debut, at age 18, in November 1933 with Benny Goodman, singing two songs: “Your Mother’s Son-In-Law” and “Riffin’ the Scotch,” the latter being her first hit. “Son-in-Law” sold 300 copies, but “Riffin’ the Scotch,” released on November 11, sold 5,000 copies. Hammond was quite impressed by Holiday’s singing style. He said of her, “Her singing almost changed my music tastes and my musical life, because she was the first girl singer I’d come across who actually sang like an improvising jazz genius.” Hammond compared Holiday favorably to Armstrong and said she had a good sense of lyric content at her young age.
In 1935, Billie Holiday had a small role as a woman being abused by her lover in Duke Ellington‘s short Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life. In her scene, she sang the song “Saddest Tale.”
Holiday was signed to Brunswick Records by John Hammond to record current pop tunes with Teddy Wilson in the new “swing” style for the growing jukebox trade. They were given free rein to improvise the material. Holiday’s improvisation of the melody line to fit the emotion was revolutionary. Their first collaboration included “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” and “Miss Brown to You (1935).” The record label did not favor the recording session, because producers wanted Holiday to sound more like Cleo Brown. After “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” garnered success, however, the company began considering Holiday an artist in her own right. She began recording under her own name a year later (on the 35 cent Vocalion label), producing a series of extraordinary performances with groups comprising the swing era‘s finest musicians.
With their arrangements, Wilson and Holiday took pedestrian pop tunes, such as “Twenty-Four Hours a Day” (#6 Pop) or “Yankee Doodle Went To Town”, and turned them into jazz classics. Most of Holiday’s recordings with Wilson or under her own name during the 1930s and early 1940s are regarded as important parts of the jazz vocal library. She was then in her early to late 20s.
“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”.
Hammond spoke about the commercial impact of the Teddy Wilson-Billie Holiday sides from 1935 to 1938, calling them a great asset to Brunswick. The record label, according to Hammond, was broke and unable to record many jazz tunes. Because Wilson, Holiday, Lester Young, and other musicians came into the studio without any arrangements, which cost money, and improvised the material as they went along, the records they produced were very cheap. Holiday was never given any royalties for her work, instead being paid a flat fee, which saved the record label money. Some of the records produced were largely successful, such as the single “I Cried for You” which sold 15,000 copies. Hammond said of the record, “15,000 … was a giant hit for Brunswick in those days. I mean a giant hit. Most records that made money sold around three to four thousand.”
In late 1937, Holiday had a brief stint as a big band vocalist with Count Basie. The traveling conditions of the band were often poor and included one-nighters in clubs, moving from city to city with little stability. Holiday chose the songs she sang and had a hand in the arrangements, choosing to portray her then developing persona of a woman unlucky in love. Her tunes included “I Must Have That Man”, “Travelin’ All Alone,” “I Can’t Get Started”, and “Summertime“, a hit for Holiday in 1936, originating in the opera Porgy and Bess a few years earlier. Count Basie had gotten used to Holiday’s heavy involvement in the band. He said, “When she rehearsed with the band, it was really just a matter of getting her tunes like she wanted them, because she knew how she wanted to sound and you couldn’t tell her what to do.”
Holiday found herself in direct competition with popular singer Ella Fitzgerald, with whom Holiday would later become friends. Fitzgerald was the vocalist for the Chick Webb Band, who were in competition with Count Basie. On January 16, 1938, the same day that Benny Goodman performed his legendary Carnegie Hall jazz concert, the Count Basie and Chick Webb bands had a battle at the Savoy Ballroom. Chick Webb and Fitzgerald were declared winners by Metronomemagazine. Down Beat magazine declared Holiday and Basie the winners. A straw poll of the audience saw Fitzgerald win by a three-to-one margin.
Some of the tunes Holiday performed with Basie were recorded. “I Can’t Get Started”, “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” and “Swing It Brother Swing,” are all commercially available. Although Holiday was unable to record in the studio with Count Basie, she did include many of his musicians in her recording dates with Teddy Wilson.
By February of that year, Holiday was no longer singing for Basie. The reason given for her firing varies from person to person. Jimmy Rushing, Basie’s male vocalist, called her unprofessional. According to All Music Guide, Holiday was officially fired for being “temperamental and unreliable”. Holiday complained of low pay and working conditions and may have refused to sing the tunes requested of her or change her style.
Holiday was hired by Artie Shaw a month after being fired from the Count Basie Band. This association placed her among the first black women to work with a white orchestra, an unusual arrangement for the times. In situations where there was a lot of racial tension, Shaw was known to stick up for his vocalist. Holiday describes one incident in her autobiography where she could not sit on the bandstand with other vocalists because she was black. Shaw said to her, “I want you on the band stand like Helen Forrest, Tony Pastor and everyone else.” When touring the American South, Holiday would sometimes be heckled by members of the audience. In Louisville, Kentucky a man called her a “nigger wench” and requested she sing another song. Holiday lost her temper and needed to be escorted off the stage.
By March 1938, Shaw and Holiday had managed to be broadcast on Radio WABC. Because of their success, they were given an extra time slot to broadcast in April, which increased their exposure. The New York Amsterdam News reported an improvement in Holiday’s performance ability while reviewing the broadcasts. Metronome reported that the addition of Holiday to Shaw’s band put it in the “top brackets”. Holiday could not sing as often during Artie Shaw’s shows as she could Basie’s. The songs were more instrumental with fewer vocals. Shaw was also pressured to hire a white singer, Nita Bradley, with whom Holiday did not get along but had to share a bandstand. In May 1938, Shaw won band battles against Tommy Dorsey and Red Norvo with the audience favoring Holiday. Although Shaw admired Holiday’s singing in his band, saying she had a “remarkable ear” and an “remarkable sense of time”, her time in the band was nearing an end.
In November 1938 Holiday was asked to use the service elevator at the Lincoln Hotel, instead of the passenger elevator, because white patrons of the hotels complained. This may have been the last straw for her. She left the band shortly after. Holiday spoke about the incident weeks later, saying “I was never allowed to visit the bar or the dining room as did other members of the band … [and] I was made to leave and enter through the kitchen.”
There are no surviving live recordings of Holiday with Artie Shaw’s band. Because she was under a separate recording label and possibly because of her race, Holiday was only able to record one record with Shaw, “Any Old Time.”
By the late 1930s, Billie Holiday had toured with Count Basie and Artie Shaw, scored a string of radio and retail hits with Teddy Wilson, and became an established artist in the recording industry. Her songs “What A Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Easy Living” were being imitated by singers across America and were quickly becoming jazz standards. In 1938, Holiday’s single “I’m Gonna Lock My Heart” ranked 6th as the most-played song for September of that year. Her record label Vocalion listed the single as its fourth best seller for the same month. “I’m Gonna Lock My Heart” peaked at number 2 on the pop charts according to Joel Whitburn’s “Pop Memories: 1890–1954” book.
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.
When Holiday’s producers at Columbia found the subject matter too sensitive, Milt Gabler agreed to record it for hisCommodore Records. That was done on April 20, 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 any 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. “The version I did for Commodore,” Holiday said of “Strange Fruit”, “became my biggest selling record.” “Strange Fruit” was the equivalent of a top twenty hit in the 1930s.
For her performance of “Strange Fruit” at the Café Society, she had waiters silence the crowd when the song began. During the song’s long introduction, the lights dimmed and all movement had to cease. As Holiday began singing, only a small spotlight illuminated her face. On the final note, all lights went out and when they came back on, Holiday was gone.
Holiday said her father Clarence Holiday was denied treatment for a fatal lung disorder because of prejudice and that singing “Strange Fruit” reminded her of the incident. “It reminds me of how Pop died, but I have to keep singing it, not only because people ask for it, but because twenty years after Pop died the things that killed him are still happening in the South,” she said in her autobiography.
Holiday’s popularity increased after recording “Strange Fruit”. She received a mention in Time magazine. “I open Café Society as an unknown,” Holiday said. “I left two years later as a star. I needed the prestige and publicity all right, but you can’t pay rent with it.” Holiday demanded her manager Joe Glaser give her a raise shortly after.
Holiday soon returned to Commodore in 1944, recording songs she made with Teddy Wilson in the 1930s like “I Cover The Waterfront,” “I’ll Get By,” and “He’s Funny That Way.” She also recorded new songs that were popular at the time, including, “My Old Flame,” “How Am I To Know?”, “I’m Yours”, and “I’ll Be Seeing You,” a Bing Crosby number one hit. She also recorded her version of “Embraceable You,” which would later be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2005.