The Lady’s Day: Reflecting on Billie Holiday at 100
Artistic brilliance transcends her turbulent struggle through poverty, prostitution and addiction
By Chris Robinson
How do we remember Billie Holiday? As a singer? A junkie? A tragic artist? Holiday, whose 100th birthday is April 7, is almost never thought of strictly as a musician — her personal life was too dramatic and at times too scandalous for the tabloids to ignore.
Was she a heroin addict, ex-convict, and child prostitute? Did she have numerous affairs with men and women? Have those parts of her life at times overshadowed her genius? Yes, and with all the sensationalism surrounding her life it’s easy to forget that she was an original artist who left an indelible mark on American music. One hundred years after her birth, Holiday’s music remains as transcendent and influential as her life story is complex and contested.
Unlike the child in her iconic 1941 song “God Bless the Child” who was born into privilege, Holiday came into this world with nothing. Born in Philadelphia to teenage parents, Holiday — whose given name was Eleanora Fagan — had a rough and difficult childhood. She grew up in Baltimore and was raped at age eleven, after which she was sent to the Catholic House of the Good Shepherd because her mother Sadie was deemed to be an unfit parent. Following her release, she worked in a brothel, where she ran errands and did chores before eventually becoming a prostitute. The brothel’s Victrola provided her first exposure to jazz.
In 1928 Holiday left Baltimore and followed her mother to Harlem. She continued working as a prostitute until the brothel was raided, which led to her arrest and a sentence of 100 days in a workhouse. Upon her release she quit working as a prostitute, rejected any thought of being a maid, and began to focus on making a career as a singer. Thus began the legendary career of one of the most influential musicians in the history of American music.
In a musical form that values a unique and personal style above all else, Billie Holiday’s individuality as a jazz artist cannot be exceeded or overstated. Holiday explained her musical influences and how she approaches a song in her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues:
I always wanted Bessie [Smith’s] big sound and Pop’s [Louis Armstrong’s] feeling. Young kids always ask me what my style is derived from and how it evolved and all that. What can I tell them? If you find a tune and it’s got something to do with you, you don’t have to evolve anything. You just feel it, and when you sing it other people can feel something too. With me, it’s got nothing to do with working or arranging or rehearsing. Give me a song I can feel, and it’s never work.
Like so many great jazz musicians who came before and after, Holiday honed her skills in late night Harlem jam sessions, where she met and befriended musicians such as Benny Goodman, Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster, and Benny Carter. Singing at these sessions also led to her “discovery” by record producer and critic John Hammond. In 1933 Hammond — who helped launch the careers of a wide variety of artists including Count Basie, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen — produced Holiday’s first recordings. Over the next several years Hammond produced hundreds of sides featuring Holiday for Columbia records and its various imprints.
This period yielded many of Holiday’s finest recordings, many of which showcased her musical soulmate, tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who nicknamed her Lady Day. Holiday spent much of 1937 and the beginning of 1938 on the road with the Count Basie orchestra, which featured Young as one of its featured soloists. During this time she experienced the difficulties of life as a touring musician: traveling five or six hundred miles on the bus each night, being hungry, exhausted, and broke.
The chemistry shared by Holiday and Young shines through on numerous recordings from the late 1930s and early 1940s. Whether recorded under her own name, or that of pianist Teddy Wilson, these tracks feature groups of around eight to ten players from the bands of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. The magical dynamic between the singer and saxophonist is especially apparent on “I’ll Never Be the Same” and “Me, Myself and I,” on which Young’s long melodic lines float and weave around Holiday’s youthful, intimate, and inviting delivery. While the pair rarely recorded together after Holiday left Basie’s group, their deep and unshakeable musical and personal connection remained steadfast for the rest of their lives.
After leaving Basie’s group, Holiday toured with clarinetist Artie Shaw’s big band. Although Shaw’s band had more money than Basie’s, Holiday’s experience was much more difficult given the realities of an African American woman traveling with an all-white band. In the Jim Crow South, Holiday often had trouble finding places to eat and hotels to stay in. This racism was not limited to the South, however, as she recounted having to go through a back entry in a New York City hotel. Despite having the support and help of Shaw and his band members, the difficulties were too much, and she left Shaw’s group after less than a year.
Touring with Basie and Shaw had helped Holiday gain a national following, and in December of 1938 she began working at the New York club Café Society, where her popularity steadily grew during the two years she performed there. It was there she met Lewis Allen, who showed her his poem that became the basis of “Strange Fruit.” Graphically depicting the bodies of lynched African Americans, “Strange Fruit” is a haunting, powerful, and disturbing song:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and 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
Scent of magnolias, 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 trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
For Holiday the song represented the racism that killed countless others, including her father — who had died after being refused treatment by several hospitals in Dallas. Columbia records was hesitant to record the song so Holiday released it on Commodore. As she recalled in her autobiography, it became her best-selling record.
The 40s were a turbulent decade for jazz: the general disruption brought by World War II; a labor dispute that led the American Federation of Musicians to ban its members from recording from 1942 to 1944, and then again in 1948; the declining economic viability of big bands; and the emergence of bebop. Holiday did not escape the decade’s turbulence either, personally or professionally.
She made her last recording for Columbia records in 1942, and following the resolution of the first recording ban, began to record for Commodore and Decca. She was now a star, and her recordings reflected this change. Whereas her earlier work frequently featured instrumental soloists like Lester Young, she was the focus on the Commodore and Decca sides. Her recordings of “Don’t Explain” (1945), which she wrote, and “Good Morning Heartache” (1946) exemplify this subtle shift from jazz singer to pop star. On both songs she is backed by a mix of brass, woodwinds, and strings — a far cry from the lively and bouncing swing of her mid-1930s sessions. She was at the height of her popularity at this time, appearing in the 1946 movie New Orleans alongside her idol Louis Armstrong. But things were about to come crashing down.
Sometime in the mid-1940s Holiday became addicted to heroin, and despite trying, she could never get clean. She was first arrested in May, 1947 in Philadelphia and subsequently spent almost ten months in a West Virginia prison. As a result of her conviction she lost her cabaret card, which prohibited her from performing in any New York venue that served alcohol. Upon her release from prison in March, 1948 she played to a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall. Her predilection for becoming involved with men of questionable character continued, and she was arrested again with her boyfriend and nightclub owner John Levy in San Francisco in 1949. She beat the charges, and continued to perform in major cities across the country.
In 1952 Holiday signed with Verve records, which marked the beginning of the final phase of her career. Like an old weathered barn, her voice was rough around the edges, while still showing the character and wisdom that only experience could bring. Worn down by time, use, and hard living, her voice was now brittle and vulnerable.
Holiday’s Verve recordings shifted back to the more jazz-oriented sides she made in the 30s, as she recorded with smaller groups who often included musicians she had first met and played with twenty years earlier. Audiences and critics are split on the quality of her later work — many feel the greater emotional depth and pain she was able to convey transcend any limitations of her voice.
In the face of addiction and declining health, Holiday continued to capture the public imagination. She published her autobiography in 1956, which despite containing factual errors and exaggerations, is a captivating read. Her concert at Carnegie Hall in November of that year was released on Verve as Billie Holiday at Carnegie Hall: The Billie Holiday Story, Vol. 6. Short readings from her autobiography were interspersed between performances of songs; the concert was a complete presentation of the Lady Day persona. Television networks were hesitant to book her, but in a rare appearance, she was reunited with Lester Young in 1957 for CBS’s Sound of Jazz. During Young’s solo on “Fine and Mellow,” the camera cut to Holiday, who was in a state of pure bliss as he blew a divine blues chorus.
In 1958 Holiday recorded Lady in Satin, which is one of her final recordings, and perhaps the best known. Backed by an orchestra with luscious and sweeping string arrangements, her performance is powerful and heart-wrenching — one hears all the pain, and bittersweet love and loss she experienced. Above all, one hears a mature artist who has the power to move her listeners. After recording Lady in Satin, her health continued to decline, and on May 31, 1959 Holiday was admitted to Metropolitan Hospital in Manhattan suffering from numerous ailments. She died there on July 17 at the age of 44.
Given her artistry, incalculable influence on jazz, and the sensational construction of her life story, it has been impossible to forget Holiday. Much of the talk falls into the “troubled and tragic artistic genius” category. In her book In Search of Billie Holiday, Farah Jasmine Griffin explains that “we think of [Holiday] in tragic terms because there are elements of her life that reinforce our own sense of tragedy and that allow us to confront and explore our own despair without losing ourselves in it.”
Griffin also points out that the recollections and perceptions of Holiday as a tragic figure were due to the press coverage of her addiction and arrests, her autobiography, and the 1972 biopic Lady Sings the Blues. These contributed to characterizations of Holiday, Griffin explains, as a “weak-willed child-woman led astray by pimp-like bad men.” This narrative overshadowed Holiday’s complex character, strength, musical importance, and her refusal to take crap from anybody.
Holiday’s story, or at least an interpretation of it, is perhaps most widely known to those listeners who were born after she died by way of Lady Sings the Blues. Produced by Motown Records founder Berry Gordy and starring Diana Ross in the lead role, it was loosely based on her autobiography. While it received several Academy Award nominations, including a Best Actress nomination for Ross, the movie emphasized Holiday’s struggle with drug addiction and portrayed her as almost childlike, lacking strength and maturity. Holiday’s husband, Louis McKay served as an adviser to the film and was played by Billy Dee Williams. The caring efforts of Williams’ McKay to keep Holiday clean are quite well removed from reality.
Even if the film’s music had been stylistically correct, if Ross had been more convincing as a jazz singer, and if the fictional musicians had been replaced by historical ones who Holiday had played with such as Artie Shaw (Richard Pryor’s character was simply called Piano Man), the movie’s focus on the tragic aspects of her life did a disservice to her music. Despite the movie’s problematic elements, many of Holiday’s recordings were reissued in its wake, thereby creating new generations of fans. The film also became the catalyst for an effort by critics and historians, such as Griffin, Stuart Nicholson, and Robert O’Meally, to correct the inaccuracies and to provide a more balanced account of her life. This work has been key to ensuring that Holiday’s artistic contributions are acknowledged and not eclipsed by tabloid sensationalism.
Since her death, the trend of celebrating Holiday’s music and life with tribute albums, concerts, documentaries, and books continues Singers from Tony Bennett and Etta James to Rosemary Clooney and Abbey Lincoln, and saxophonists such as Johnny Griffin, James Carter, and Archie Shepp have all recorded albums dedicated to Holiday. In 1979, a star-studded cast of singers including Nina Simone, Carmen McRae, Esther Phillips, Morgana King, and Maxine Weldon gave a tribute concert at the Hollywood Bowl.
Recent years have seen the production of two high-profile musicals. Lady Day, from 2013, starred jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, while Audra McDonald, who sounds eerily similar to Holiday, won a 2014 Tony award for her performance in the one person Broadway play Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. Holiday’s influences reach beyond jazz as well — she has been covered and sampled by diverse musicians such as singer-songwriter Cat Power and MC/producer Blu.
The centennial of Holiday’s birth will be celebrated with the release of two new vocal albums dedicated to Holiday, a new Holiday compilation album, and a new biography. José James released Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday on Blue Note Records on March 31, while Cassandra Wilson’s Coming Forth by Day appears on April 7, Holiday’s birthday. Also appearing on her birthday are a career-spanning compilation from Sony Legacy entitled The Centennial Collection, and John Szwed’s new biography Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth, which focuses primarily on her music.
That Holiday continues to inspire creative and intellectual pursuits of all kinds reflects her unique ability to take listeners on an emotional journey. While explaining in her autobiography why Lester Young’s sound was so special, Holiday outlined her own musical philosophy:
Everyone’s got to be different. You can’t copy anybody and end up with anything. If you copy, it means you’re working without any real feeling. And without feeling, whatever you do amounts to nothing. No two people on earth are alike, and it’s got to be that way in music or it isn’t music… You can’t even be like you once were yourself, let alone like somebody else. I can’t stand to sing the same song the same way two nights in succession, let alone two years or ten years. If you can, then it ain’t music, it’s close-order drill or exercise or yodeling or something, not music.
This quote speaks to how and why Holiday was such an original. When she burst onto the scene nobody had heard a singer like her. No singer, male or female, has sounded like her since she died, and on her 100th birthday it’s safe to say that nobody will.
It wasn’t the sensational parts of her life that made Holiday special, as millions of people have suffered from drug addiction, poverty, and abusive relationships. It was her music, and it always will be.
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