"Billie Holiday's 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 again." (Leonard Feather)
Four decades after her death and the name Billie Holiday is still synonymous with the best of jazz vocals – a pure, unadulterated expression of love, hurt and anguish, “Lady Day” as she became known (first referred to as this by Lester Young) had a voice that once heard, is never forgotten.
Billie was born Eleanora Fagan Gough in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania April 17th, 1915 although the validity of her date of birth is still uncertain. Her parents were very young and never married (her mother was in fact only 13 when she gave birth to Billie), her father Clarence was a guitarist and played with Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra.
At ten years old, Billie suffered perhaps the first real trauma of her life – she was raped. He was sent to jail - however, the general assumption at the time was that a rape victim was not so much a victim as a wayward woman – so Billie was sent to a “corrective home for girls”.
Two years later she moved with her mother to New Jersey and from there to Brooklyn and during this period her mother gave her the nickname “Billie” after the silent screen star Billie Dove whom she idolised. She spent some time helping her mother with her job as domestic worker – her father had by now left the family – but Billie essentially grew up alone, with a lack of affection from her mother – leading to a severe inferiority complex which haunted her until the day she died.
Route into Jazz
One of the domestic jobs taken on by her mother was in an infamous local brothel, and it was here that Billie first heard and imitated her jazz heroes such as Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. The influence of jazz on the young girl was immediate and intense and over the next few years, she spent a lot of time listening to recordings of the time.
Her debut is said to have been at a club called “Covan’s” in 1932. It was here that she was spotted by John Hammond, who was astounded by the unique sound, as he would later recount "The way she sang around a melody, her uncanny harmonic sense and her sense of lyric content were almost unbelievable in a girl of seventeen."
Hammond arranged for her to record with Benny Goodman in 1933 – the results were not overly successful but it did certainly mark the start of her career. Two years later she sang with a band led by Teddy Wilson and this time the styles merged well. Throughout the period of 1935-42 she made some of the best recordings of her career with some of the most renowned artists of the time. The early influences of Armstrong and Smith were key to the vocal style she created which was so distinctive.
By 1937-38 she had begun recording with the likes of Lester Young and Buck Clayton and she was singing in numerous clubs with The Count Basie Band and The Artie Shaw Band, two of the most successful ensembles of the “big-band” era. Billie Holiday was now a major star of the jazz scene, but she nevertheless encountered much racism on her tours – the song “Strange Fruit”, recorded in 1939 documents this well.
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves
Blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
The scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
for the rain to gather
for the wind to suck
for the sun to rot
for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop. (Lyrics by: Lewis Allan)
Her recordings of 1940-42 saw her taking the lead role and her fellow artists playing more of a supportive role than they would have previously – she recorded the classic “God Bless the Child” in 1941. 1944-49 saw her voice gaining more and more strength and character, many of her recordings at this point were more elaborate too – with orchestrations for strings and background vocals. During this period she recorded her biggest hit - "Lover Man", amongst others - "Don't Explain," "Good Morning Heartache", "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do", "Them There Eyes" and "Crazy He Calls Me". On a more negative note, she had become a heroin addict a few years earlier and as a result spent much of 1947 in jail. As is often the case, the notoriety that this gave her meant that her audiences increased in number shortly afterwards.
From 1950 onwards, her heroin use and excessive drinking coupled with her troubled relationships made for an unhappy life. She was still making quality recordings with many famous names in the industry - Charlie Shavers, Buddy DeFranco, Harry "Sweets" Edison and Ben Webster but her voice was suffering. By 1956, the drugs and drink had almost consumed her talent, and despite one final burst of brilliance – singing "Fine and Mellow" on "The Sound of Jazz" telecast with Lester Young, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Gerry Mulligan and Roy Eldridge, she never really re-lived her previous successes.
Her album of 1958 "Lady in Satin" was disappointing – her aged voice sounding beyond her years. She was lonely, short of money and the following year on 31st May she collapsed in her apartment. She was taken to the Metropolitan Hospital in Harlem, and was diagnosed as having a liver complaint and cardiac problems. She briefly recovered only to have her hospital room raided by police on 12th June. They found a small amount of heroin. On the morning of July 17th, 1959, aged 44, Billie Holiday died. On examination of her body, 750 dollars was found taped to her leg. Her bank account was in credit by 70 cents. It is sadly ironic that record sales immediately after her death made more than $100,000.
It is often the case that brilliant musicians, writers and artists draw much from their harsh experience of life and that this is seen through their works and performances. This is certainly the case with Billie Holiday. Her unique sound will never be recaptured.
"You can be up to your boobies in white satin, with gardenias in your hair and no sugar cane for miles, but you can still be working on a plantation." (Billie Holiday)
Billie Holidays recordings are too numerous to list here, there are around 918 different tracks that she contributed to, and about 283 albums released. So I have simply listed her most popular songs and albums below which I imagine will make a good starting point for anyone wishing to sample her music:
List taken from: http://www.xsplus.freeler.nl/
- Golden Years, Vols. 1&2 (Columbia, 1973)
- The Quintessential Billie Holiday, vols 1 to 9 (Columbia, 1987-91)
- The Complete Billie Holiday On Columbia 1933-1944 (Sony Legacy, 2001)
- Lady Day: The Best Of Billie Holiday (Sony Legacy, 2001)
- The Legacy (1933-1958) (Columbia Legacy, 1991)
- The Complete Decca Recordings (MCA/GRP, 1991)
- The Billie Holiday Story (Decca)
- Lady In Satin (Columbia, 1958)
- Billie Sings The Blues: Rare Recordings 1949-1957 (Sandy Hook, 1982)
List taken from: http://www.slipcue.com/music/jazz/artists/holiday.html