Happy birthday Billie Holiday!
Billie Holiday (April 7, 1915-July 17, 1959) was an American jazz vocalist and songwriter. She is commonly regarded as one of the greatest jazz singers of all time. Holiday had a difficult and impoverished childhood, born to a teen mother. Some of her biggest hits include "Easy Living," "Good Morning Heartache," and "Strange Fruit." Her voice, untrained and inspired by jazz instrumentalists, was iconic.
Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan to a thirteen-year-old Sarah Fagan in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her father, Clarence Holiday, was not present. Her mother moved her to Baltimore to live with her older half-sister while she worked a series of transportation jobs. Holiday spent a difficult childhood there, raped by a neighbor, Wilbur Rich, until her mother returned home. Her interest in music came when she started listening to Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong records while running errands for a brothel.
Billie Holiday with Louis Armstrong
Billie Holiday with Ella Fitzgerald
In 1928, Holiday moved to New York City with her mother. She began singing at clubs around Harlem, but her music career really took off when she was asked to record with Benny Goodman. Throughout the late 1930s, after being to signed to Brunswick Records, she recorded a series of pop tunes for jukeboxes in the new swing style. It was on these recordings that she first began to improvise melody to parallel the emotion of the music.
Holiday had an extremely close working relationship and friendship with jazz tenor saxophonist Lester Young. They recorded together throughout the 1930s, but not after, though they remained close friends. He nicknamed her "Lady Day," a name she would go by when she recorded "Trav'lin Light" in 1942 because her contract with Columbia Records wouldn't allow her to release anything under the name Billie Holiday.
Holiday had a drug and alcohol problem throughout her life. She was arrested for possession of narcotics in 1947, and was released for good behavior a little under a year later. She drank and used marijuana heavily throughout the 1950s. She also had a string of relationships with abusive men. All this resulted in her voice becoming strained by the end of the 1950s. Holiday performed to a packed house at Carnegie Hall in 1956, and Gilbert Millstein of The New York Times, who narrated the concerts, later wrote:
"It was evident, even then, that Miss Holiday was ill. I had known her casually over the years and I was shocked at her physical weakness. Her rehearsal had been desultory; her voice sounded tinny and trailed off; her body sagged tiredly. But I will not forget the metamorphosis that night. The lights went down, the musicians began to play and the narration began. Miss Holiday stepped from between the curtains, into the white spotlight awaiting her, wearing a white evening gown and white gardenias in her black hair. She was erect and beautiful; poised and smiling. And when the first section of narration was ended, she sang – with strength undiminished – with all of the art that was hers. I was very much moved. In the darkness, my face burned and my eyes. I recall only one thing. I smiled."
By 1959, Holiday was suffering from liver and heart disease. She was arrested for drug possession even as she lay on her deathbed. She died with less than $1000 to her name in 1959.
The following recordings have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame:
"Crazy He Calls Me"
Lady in Satin
"Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?)"
"God Bless The Child"
Bonus track for fans of David Sedaris: Listen to the author belt out a surprisingly accurate impression of Holiday, here.
- Birthday Date: Monday, 07 April 2014