Billie Holiday (April 7, 1915- July 17, 1959), one of the greatest jazz singers of all time. Also known as Lady Day, she cast an almost magical spell over audiences with her ability to find the emotional core of a song.
Born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, she was the daughter of jazz guitarist Clarence Holiday, but they had no contact during her upbringing. She spent an impoverished childhood in Baltimore before she moved with her mother to New York City in the late 1920s. There, she began singing in Harlem nightclubs and took the name Billie. The producer John Hammond, who loved Monette Moore’s singing and had come to hear her, first heard Holiday in early 1933. Hammond arranged for Holiday to make her recording debut, at age 18, in November 1933 with Benny Goodman, singing two songs: “Your Mother’s Son-In-Law” and “Riffin’ the Scotch,” the latter being her first hit. “Son-in-Law” sold 300 copies, but “Riffin’ the Scotch,” released on November 11, sold 5,000 copies. Hammond was quite impressed by Holiday’s singing style. He said of her, “Her singing almost changed my music tastes and my musical life, because she was the first girl singer I’d come across who actually sang like an improvising jazz genius.” Hammond compared Holiday favourably to Armstrong and said she had a good sense of lyric content at her young age.
A recording session in 1935 brought her to public attention. Thereafter she was vocalist with various big bands, including those of Count Basie and Artie Shaw, and made many recordings with saxophonist Lester Young and with pianist Teddy Wilson. Young nicknamed her Lady Day.
Holiday reinterpreted popular melodies with great freedom, particularly through her ever-varied manner of stretching and compressing rhythmic details in relation to the beat. Her voice had a unique, unforgettable, piercingly emotional tone quality, and this special sound, together with her blues-inflected delivery, brought profound depth and meaning to whatever she sang, however uncomplicated the lyrics may have seemed. Examples include “These Foolish Things” (1936), “He’s Funny That Way” (1937), “Them There Eyes” (1939), “Strange Fruit” (1939), and “All of Me” (1941). By 1941, when Holiday recorded “God Bless the Child” and “Georgia on My Mind,” the undertone of sprightly good humor had largely departed from her performances, and she focused more and more on gloomy tempos.
“God Bless the Child” became Holiday’s most popular and covered record. It reached number 25 on the charts in 1941 and third in Billboard’s songs of the year, selling over a million records. In September 1946, Holiday began her only major film New Orleans. She starred opposite Louis Armstrong and Woody Herman. Plagued by racism, producer Jules Levey and script writer Herbert Biberman were pressed to lessen Holiday’s and Armstrong’s roles to avoid the impression that black people created jazz.
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s Holiday appeared in clubs around the United States, although racial discrimination made touring difficult. She experienced a succession of disastrous personal relationships, and by the 1950s her voice increasingly showed the effects of alcoholism and long-term heroin addiction. She died in New York City. Billie Holiday died in the Metropolitan Hospital, New York, on Friday, July 17, 1959, in the bed in which she had been arrested for illegal possession of narcotics a little more than a month before, as she lay mortally ill.
Holiday rarely sang traditional blues, but her reputation rests on her ability to transform popular songs into emotionally profound pieces. Holiday’s book Lady Sings the Blues (1956) inspired a 1972 movie of the same name. Singer Diana Ross played the title role.
Them that’s got shall get
Them that’s not shall lose
So the Bible says
And it still is news
Mama may have
Papa may have,
But God bless the child that’s got his own.
Billie Holiday (1915 – 1959)
God Bless the Child
People don’t understand the sort of fight it takes to record what you want, to record the way you want to record it.
Billie Holiday (1915 – 1959)
Lady Sings the Blues (co-written with William Duffy)