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Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan Gough; April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959) was an American jazz singer and songwriter.
Nicknamed Lady Day by her sometime collaborator Lester Young, Holiday was a seminal influence on jazz and pop singing. Her vocal style — strongly inspired by instrumentalists — pioneered a new way of manipulating wording and tempo, and also popularized a more personal and intimate approach to singing. Critic John Bush wrote that she "changed the art of American pop vocals forever." She co-wrote only a few songs, but several of them have become jazz standards, notably "God Bless the Child", "Don't Explain", and "Lady Sings the Blues". She also became famous for singing jazz standards written by others, including "Easy Living" and "Strange Fruit."
There is some controversy regarding Holiday's paternity, stemming from a copy of her birth certificate in the Baltimore archives that lists the father as a "Frank DeViese". Some historians consider this an anomaly, probably inserted by a hospital or government worker.
Thrown out of her parents' home in Baltimore after becoming pregnant
at thirteen, Billie's mother, Sadie Fagan, moved to Philadelphia where
Billie was born. Mother and child eventually settled in a poor section
of Baltimore. Her parents married when she was three, but they soon
divorced, leaving her to be raised largely by her mother and other
relatives. At the age of 10, she reported that she had been raped. That
claim, combined with her frequent truancy, resulted in her being sent to
The House of the Good Shepherd, a Catholic reform school, in 1925. It
was only through the assistance of a family friend that she was released
two years later. Scarred by these experiences, Holiday moved to New York
City with her mother in 1928. In 1929 Holiday's mother discovered a
neighbor, Wilbert Rich, in the act of raping her daughter; Rich was
sentenced to three months in jail.
Hammond arranged for Holiday to make her recording debut in November 1933 Benny Goodman singing two songs: "Your Mother's Son-In-Law" and "Riffin' the Scotch". Goodman was also on hand in 1935, when she continued her recording career with a group led by pianist Teddy Wilson. Their first collaboration included "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" and "Miss Brown To You", which helped to establish Holiday as a major vocalist. She began recording under her own name a year later, producing a series of extraordinary performances with groups comprising the Swing Era's finest musicians.
Wilson was signed to Brunswick Records by John Hammond for the purpose of recording current pop tunes in the new Swing style for the growing juKeb' Mo'ox trade. They were given free rein to improvise the material. Holiday's amazing method of improvising the melody line to fit the emotion was revolutionary. (Wilson and Holiday took pedestrian pop tunes like "Twenty-Four Hours A Day" or "Yankee Doodle Never Went To Town" and turned them into jazz classics with their arrangements.) With few exceptions, the recordings she made with Wilson or under her own name during the 1930s and early 1940s are regarded as important parts of the jazz vocal library.
Billie also wrote songs during the 1930s. Such songs include
"Billie's Blues", "Tell Me More (And Then Some)", "Everything Happens
For The Best", "Our Love Is Different", and "Long Gone Blues".
When Holiday's producers at Columbia found the subject matter too
sensitive, Milt Gabler agreed to record it for his Commodore Records.
That was done in April, 1939 and "Strange Fruit" remained in her
repertoire for twenty years. She later recorded it again for Verve.
While the Commodore release did not get airplay, the controversial song
sold well, though Gabler attributed that mostly to the record's other
side, "Fine and Mellow", which was a juKeb' Mo'ox hit.
Holiday continued to record for Decca until 1950, including sessions
with the Duke Ellington and Count Basie orchestras, and two duets with
Louis Armstrong. Holiday's Decca recordings featured big bands and,
sometimes, strings, contrasting her intimate small group Columbia
accompaniments. Some of the songs from her Decca repertoire became
signatures, including "Don't Explain" and "Good Morning Heartache".
"I thought I was going to play myself in it. I thought I was going to
be Billie Holiday doing a couple of songs in a nightclub setting and
that would be that. I should have known better. When I saw the script, I
did. You just tell one Negro girl who's made movies who didn't play a
maid or a whore. I don't know any. I found out I was going to do a
little singing, but I was still playing the part of a maid."
Luckily for Holiday, she was released early (March 16, 1948) due to good behavior. When she arrived at Newark, everybody was there to welcome her back, including her pianist Bobby Tucker. "I might just as well have wheeled into Penn Station and had a quiet little get-together with the Associated Press, United Press, and International News Service."
Ed Fishman (who fought with Joe Glaser to be Holiday's manager) thought of the idea to throw a comeback concert at Carnegie Hall. Holiday hesitated at the idea because she thought that nobody would accept her back, but she decided to go with the idea.
On March 27, 1948, the Carnegie concert was a success. Everything was
sold out before the concert started. It isn't certain how many sets
Holiday did. She did sing Cole Porter's "Night and Day" and "Strange
Fruit". The concert was never recorded.
By the 1950s, Holiday's drug abuse, drinking, and relations with abusive men led to deteriorating health. As evidenced by her later recordings, Holiday's voice coarsened and did not project the vibrance it once had. However, she retained — and, perhaps, strengthened — the emotional impact of her delivery (See below).
On March 28, 1952, Holiday married Louis McKay, a Mafia enforcer. McKay, like most of the men in her life, was abusive, but he did try to get her off drugs. They were separated at the time of her death, but McKay had plans to start a chain of Billie Holiday vocal studios, a la Arthur Murray dance schools.
Her late recordings on Verve constitute about a third of her commercial recorded legacy and are as well remembered as her earlier work for the Columbia, Commodore and Decca labels. In later years her voice became more fragile, but it never lost the edge that had always made it so distinctive. On November 10, 1956, she performed before a packed audience at Carnegie Hall, a major accomplishment for any artist, especially a black artist of the segregated period of American history. Her performance of "Fine And Mellow" on CBS's The Sound of Jazz program is memorable for her interplay with her long-time friend Lester Young; both were less than two years from death. (see the clip here)
Holiday first toured Europe in 1954, as part of a Leonard Feather package that also included Buddy DeFranco and Red Norvo. When she returned, almost five years later, she made one of her last television appearances for Granada's "Chelsea at Nine", in London. Her final studio recordings were made for MGM in 1959, with lush backing from Ray Ellis and his Orchestra, who had also accompanied her on Columbia's Lady in Satin album the previous year — see below). The MGM sessions were released posthumously on a self-titled album, later re-titled and re-released as Last Recordings.
Holiday's autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, was ghostwritten by
William Dufty and published in 1956. Dufty, a New York Post writer and
editor then married to Holiday's close friend Maely Dufty, wrote the
book quickly from a series of conversations with the singer in the
Duftys' 93rd Street apartment, drawing on the work of earlier
interviewers as well. His aim was to let Holiday tell her story her way.
Billie Holiday photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1949Her distinct delivery made Billie Holiday's performances instantly recognizable throughout her career. Her voice lacked range and was somewhat thin, plus years of abuse eventually altered the texture of her voice and gave it a prepossessing fragility. Nonetheless, the emotion with which she imbued each song remained not only intact but also profound.. Her last major recording, a 1958 album entitled Lady in Satin, features the backing of a 40-piece orchestra conducted and arranged by Ray Ellis, who said of the album in 1997:
I would say that the most emotional moment was her listening to the playback of "I'm a Fool to Want You." There were tears in her eyes ... After we finished the album I went into the control room and listened to all the takes. I must admit I was unhappy with her performance, but I was just listening musically instead of emotionally. It wasn't until I heard the final mix a few weeks later that I realized how great her performance really was.
References and tributes