Personalities | Billie Holiday | Forties | Jazz & Blues

Billie Holiday was entirely untrained as a singer, but drew on the example of popular recording artists such as Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong in developing her musical approach. She was able to make much of poor songs as well as great ones. Her phrasing, intonation, attention to the weight and nuance of lyrics, and her lightly inflected, subtly off-the-beat rhythmic placement were all highly individual and became widely influential.

Her early life is confusing. Recent biographical research has confirmed that she was born in Philadelphia in 1915 and was known by several names, the most frequently used being Eleanora Fagan. She was known as Billie from childhood, and took the surname Holiday from her largely absent father, guitarist Clarence Holiday. She was jailed for prostitution in New York in 1930, and began her singing career shortly afterwards in clubs in Brooklyn and then Harlem.

Lady Day And Lester

Producer John Hammond heard her perform and arranged for her to record with Benny Goodman in 1933. She made her professional debut at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in 1934, and in 1935–42, with pianist Teddy Wilson, began the series of recordings that made her name, working alongside major jazz musicians such as trumpeters Buck Clayton and Roy Eldridge and saxophonist Lester Young (who bestowed her with the nickname ‘Lady Day’). Young was regarded as her closest musical associate, and there was undoubtedly a special chemistry at work in their collaborations.

Her fame was largely confined to the African-American community at that stage, but spells with Count Basie in 1937 and Artie Shaw in 1938 brought her to wider notice and, in the latter case, helped to break the bar on black musicians working with white bands that was still very much in force. Her standing with intellectuals, leftists and radicals was boosted by her appearances at the interracial Café Society in 1939 and her recording of ‘Strange Fruit’, a song about southern lynchings that quickly attained cult status.

Success Turns Sour

Trademark ballad performances, including ‘God Bless The Child’, ‘I Cover The Waterfront’, ‘Gloomy Sunday’ (all 1941) and ‘Lover Man’ (1944), had made her a big name by the mid-1940s. She played her only minor acting role on film in 1946, as a maid opposite Louis Armstrong in New Orleans.

Her drug use led to imprisonment on drug charges in 1947 (recent research has suggested that she may have been set up, although her addiction was real enough). Her relationships with men were rarely to her advantage, emotionally or financially. Her career slipped in the wake of her jail sentence, in large part because she could no longer work in clubs in New York without the Cabaret Card, which was automatically denied to musicians convicted of drug charges.

Hard Times

Her health and her voice began to show the ravages of a hard life and drug abuse, but she was still capable of memorable performances in the 1950s, including a treasured clip made for the television special The...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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