Lady Sings the Blues by Allie Michelle
Billie Holiday’s reedy, melancholy voice captures the essence of the Blues unlike any other vocalist. She did more than hit the notes. She possessed a rare gift to express the emotion behind the song lyrics, both joy and more often sorrow. Perhaps her ability stemmed from her range of life experiences. Throughout her successful musical career she also dealt with rape, addiction, and imprisonment. This is the story of the legendary Blues and Jazz singer, Billie Holiday.
I never hurt nobody but myself and that’s nobody’s business but my own.
Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to a teenage mother. Although the identity of her father remains under dispute, many believe him to be Clarence Holiday, a successful Jazz musician who abandoned her family, and had little involvement in her life.
Holiday grew up impoverished in Baltimore, Maryland. Her adolescence turned ugly after a neighbor raped her at the young age of 10. Afterwards, the authorities sentenced the man to a mere three months in jail. Meanwhile, Holiday was sent to a reformatory for troubled African American girls after accused of being “provocative”.
Two years later, Billie Holiday left the reformatory and joined her mother who had moved to Harlem in New York City. While living in Harlem, both Holiday and her mother worked as prostitutes for which she was arrested at 14.
I never had a chance to play with dolls like other kids. I started working when I was six years old.
By 1930, Holiday began singing in local clubs and renamed herself “Billie” after the film star Billie Dove. At 18 years old, a Jazz producer named John Hammond discovered Billie while performing in a local nightclub. Hammond helped jumpstart Billie’s early success by getting her recording work with up-and-coming band leader and clarinet player, Benny Goodman. She released her first records with Goodman, including “Your Mother’s Son-In-Law” and the 1934 top ten hit “Riffin’ the Scotch“.
You can’t copy anybody and end with anything. If you copy, it means you’re working without any real feeling. No two people on earth are alike, and it’s got to be that way in music or it isn’t music.
In 1935, Holiday started to record with pianist Teddy Wilson along with the brilliant tenor sax player, Lester Young. These Columbia recordings from the 1930s and mid-’40s represent Holiday’s finest work. They include such songs as “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and “God Bless the Child” which Billie helped compose. Holiday then performed with Count Basie’s band in 1937. The following year she signed with clarinetist, Artie Shaw and his band. She later quit out of outrage when racial restrictions forbid her from entering hotels while on tour, and led her own groups for the remainder of her career. Then in 1939, Billie recorded her signature ballad and prejudice and lynching in the south called “Strange Fruit”.
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.
After 1944, she developed a serious heroin addiction that eventually led to her arrest. She was imprisoned for almost a year and was thereafter prohibited from performing at New York night clubs. This period of her life became a downward spiral, owing to her self-destructive attraction to abusive and manipulative men. During this time, Holiday recorded with Verve records. Although her voice became worn from years of drugs and drinking, these 1950s recordings capture some of the most moving performances of her career.
All dope can do for you is kill you… the long hard way. And it can kill the people you love right along with you.
Holiday’s hard drug and alcohol use got the best of her by 1959. On her deathbed, police arrested Holiday for heroin possession in the New York City hospital where she was being treated for kidney disease and subsequently died at the age of 44. She is buried at Saint Raymond’s Cemetery in Bronx County, New York.
Want to learn more about famous Blues musicians? Read our article about Robert Johnson, Me and the Devil Blues.