Billie Holiday is almost always referred to as a “mystery” or a “myth” as if the act of telling her story is, by necessity, much more than a relating of facts but is an attempt to capture the truth of her life as if she was an elusive, exotic prey with shifting camouflage. It is the race to be the first to piece together that one true narrative of her life and music. And it often entails emphasizing what others – including Billie herself – got wrong. While the lives and works of many artists inspire research and debate, what stands out in Holiday’s case is the level of agitation in the arguments, the intensity of the need to pin down a persona, and the relish of revealing her drug use, tragic upbringing, abusive men, disruptive public demeanour, and jail time. Yet, should you focus only on the facts and retold ‘truths’ of Holiday’s life, you would will miss that which makes her exceptional – just how much and how deeply she feels. Her ability to connect to a song and to share that connection with her audience is the basis of much of her success. Her emotional expression is so convincing that her performances are almost autobiographical, even when many of her songs are written by others. She is particularly warm towards her friends and supporters, deeply caring of her mother, and especially compassionate towards the unwanted children experiencing childhoods similar to her own. She has a sharp sense of irony and humour and she is brutally honest.
It would be impossible for us to do justice to Lady Day in this limited space. Instead, we have done our best to present some facets of Billie Holiday, contrasting as they may be. If we have chosen not to highlight some of the darkest shades of her life, it’s only because many others have placed much emphasis there already. We ask only that you set aside what you believe you may know and consider these various glimpses of Billie Holiday as small parts of an integrated whole being living within a particular cultural context, with far-reaching influence and phenomenal musicality.
Barack Obama, Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters
She was born Eleanora (April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959) to teenage parents. Her father, a banjo player, visits occasionally amidst his travels. Her mother Sadie works various jobs and continues to be in and out of her life depending on her current financial situation though her contemporaries recall her mother being being mostly absent. Eleanora is primarily raised by her relatives, though she was brought before Juvenile Court for playing truant and being ‘without proper care and guardianship’. She spends 10 months in a Catholic reform school before being released on parole. Just a few months after her release, she is raped by her neighbour. She is sent back to the reform school as a State Witness and it takes more than a month before she is released at the intervention of a lawyer. Two years later, Eleanora would move to Harlem to join her mother who is trying in a brothel. Shortly thereafter, Eleanora, her mother, and several others are arrested in a night raid. She is found guilty of vagrancy and sent to Welfare Island where she remains for a few months. She is 14 years old on her release when she rejoins her mother and begins singing at a small cabaret bar. It is around this time that she changes her name to Billie in honour of the actress Billie Dove who she would sneak into movies to watch. She also adopts the exotic sounding last name of her father – Holiday.
According to Holiday, her passion for jazz started early when the albums of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith playing on a Victrola record player in the parlour were her payment for running errands for a brothel. And while her style may not be appreciated by all, there is almost complete agreement among artists, publishers, producers, professors, and critics that Holiday’s musical ear was especially gifted. With only one listening, she could pick up any tune. She would use her voice like an instrument, displaying a mastery of unique phrasing and singing behind the beat while dancing in and out of the melody without ever getting lost.
Holiday had the most extraordinary gift of phrasing that I’d ever heard in a singer […] Once she heard it, she knew exactly how the tune should go. – Ralph Kirkpatrick, Yale Professor
The first night she handed me some tattered lead sheets, and said, ‘Give me four bars.’ I played four bars. But she didn’t come in. Figuring she hadn’t heard me, or just missed her cue, I started over again. Suddenly I felt a tap on the back of my head and I heard her say, ‘Don’t worry ‘bout me – I’ll be there.’ She added that she liked to come in behind the beat, as I discovered, and that I didn’t have to bother to make her look good. Looking back, I’d say that few performers had such a solid judgment about tempo as she did, particularly when it came to doing certain tunes in a very slow tempo… Billie was the greatest tempo singer that ever lived. – Johnny Guarnieri, pianist with Artie Shaw’s band
Yet to Holiday, it was all very natural.
Singing songs like ‘The Man I Love’ or ‘Porgy’ is no more work than sitting down and eating Chinese roast duck, and I love roast duck. I’ve lived songs like that. When I sing them I live them again and I love them.
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.
Billie Holiday’s screen debut (at 4min,40sec) in Duke Ellington’s Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life, 1935
(Also check out the dancing at the 3 minute mark)
Holiday’s musical career is generally separated into 3 periods:
1933-1942 – Holiday is promoted by John Hammond Jr. as a jazz artist and begins recording with Columbia Affiliates. It is during this period that Holiday is hired by Artie Shaw as one of the first African American women to sing with an all-white band but a tour of the southern States is so disastrous that eventually upon their return to New York, Holiday leaves the band to sing at Café Society where the colour of her skin did not make her a second class citizen. It is here that she debuts a different kind of song, one that she is initially uncomfortable with but that would become known as “the first unmuted cry against racism” and “a declaration of war… the beginning of the civil rights movement”. For Holiday, the song would become such a part of her that she later adds a clause to her contracts to ensure she will be allowed to sing “Strange Fruit” in clubs where they would rather just have her love songs.
She gave a startling, most dramatic and effective interpretation of the song which could jolt audience out of its complacency anywhere. This was exactly what I wanted the song to do and why I wrote it. Billie Holiday’s styling fulfilled the bitterness and the shocking quality I had hoped the song would have. The audience gave a tremendous ovation. – Abel Meeropol, Strange Fruit song-writer
Billie Holiday – Strange Fruit – 1959
1942-1950 – Holiday transfers first to Commodore, a small jazz group, and then to Decca Records where she begins to record more show tunes and songs with high emotional content. Holiday’s success with Decca bring her prominence in the pop community and she becomes one of the few jazz singers to lead solo concerts in the 1940s. This era also marks her increasing troubles with narcotics. Arrested for possession, her trial is famously called ‘The United States of America versus Billie Holiday’. She is sentenced to one year and a day, but released early for good behaviour.
Much has been made of Holiday’s drug addiction but there is also evidence that perhaps she wasn’t quite as addicted as her legend entails (although there is no doubt she constantly consumed copious amounts of alcohol and was a frequent drug-user), but rather that the newly formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics needed to prosecute a person of prestige and Holiday’s steady popularity due to her insistence on performing Strange Fruit made her a prime target.
It is argued that her last 2 albums – “Lady in Satin” (1958) and “Billie Holiday” (1959, later titled “Last Recording” following her death) belong in their own selection. “Lady in Satin” was recorded in 3 sessions of ‘torture’ according to Ray Ellis, the arranger and conductor.
I was so mad at her, I actually fought through the first session […] It was an ego thing with me, because I’d slaved over the arrangements, picturing the way she was going to sign it, and she wasn’t singing it the way I’d though and I hated her. I literally hated her.
Despite wishing he had never gotten involved in the project, Ellis came around with just one listening of the final album.
Billie Holiday and Mister, New York City, 1949
Holiday loved cooking and she loved her dog Mister who followed her everywhere,
even watching her perform from off-stage
But I was despondent because I love it. It was so sad. It didn’t matter whether she sang the right note or the wrong note, because she sang twenty thousand wrong notes on that thing. But she poured her heart out. What she ended up doing was a recitation to the music, although I hadn’t realized that at the time. […] She gave me the opportunity to be heard.
Such was the magic of Holiday. The musical spell she wove won over even those who’s dealings with her had created the most frustrations. And these recordings were produced when Holiday’s health had so deteriorated that she often was supported in a chair by her assistnat. Though Columbia and MGM produced the final albums at great expense, employing many of today’s common technological tricks purely out of necessity to ensure the completion of the projects, they have often been excluded from her life’s retrospective and from her ‘complete’ recordings.
Billie Holiday, 1959
Sensitive and insecure in her abilities, Holiday much preferred performing in smaller clubs or with a single spotlight that hid the audience from her
They had the same sort of fears and lack of confidence, and the need to keep the world at bay with drink and drugs; they also had the same easy generosity and hopeless business sense. But beyond that there was their shared ability to give power and poignancy to the most sentimental lyrics – Julia Blackburn
Yet, Holiday’s heroin use and a misunderstanding led to their separation for many years. Though previously reunited, it was, perhaps, Holiday’s 1957 live performance of “Fine and Mellow” that was the most poignant. The song was originally released in 1939 but the most famous performance occurred during a live television special “The Sound of Jazz”. The musical lineup was stacked with jazz legends including Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, and Holiday’s old friend Lester Young.
“What made this the climax of the show was this: She and Lester Young […] had been very close for a long time, but then they stopped being close. They paid very little attention to each other while we were rehearsing the show. […] When it came to his solo, in the middle of “Fine and Mellow,” Lester stood up and he blew the purest blues I have ever heard. Watching Billie and Lester interact, she was watching him with her eyes with a slight smile, and it looked as if she and Lester were remembering other times, better times. And this is true — it sounds corny — in the control room, Herridge, the producer, had tears in his eyes. So did the engineer. So did I. It was just extraordinarily moving. I think for all the times she sang this song, on records and in night clubs, this was the performance that I think meant the most to her. – Nat Hentoff, music writer and “The Sound of Jazz” production team
Billie Holiday – Fine and Mellow, 1957
Blackburn, Julia. 2005. With Billie. New York: Vintage Books.
Collier, JL. 1979. The Making Of Jazz. New York: Dell.
Davis, Angela Y. 1998. Blues Legacies And Black Feminism. New York: Random House US.
Golio, Gary, and Charlotte Riley-Webb. 2017. Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday And The Power Of A Protest Song. Minneapolis: Millbrook Press.
Holiday, Billie, and William Dufty. 1956. Lady Sings The Blues. New York: Broadway Books.
Novesky, Amy. 2013. Mister And Lady Day. Harcourt.
Obama, Barack. 2010. Of Thee I Sing: A Letter To My Daughters. 1st ed. New York: Knofp Books for Young Readers.
Szwed, JF. 2016. Billie Holiday: The Musician And The Myth. New York: Penguin Books.