Billie Holiday (1915-1959) was a jazz vocalist with perhaps the most emotional depth of any singer in jazz history.
Billie Holiday's life was tragic. Born into out-of-wedlock poverty, she rose to a position of artistic pre-eminence in the world of jazz, but her personal life was one of constant turmoil and struggle. She fought seemingly endless wars—with drug addiction, with narcotics agents' harassment, with racism, with self-serving lovers, and with human parasites in and out of the music business. Withal, her vocal artistry was joyously, bittersweetly transcendant. Many serious listeners consider her the greatest jazz vocalist ever.
She was born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915, in Baltimore, Maryland. (The name "Billie" she later borrowed from one of her favorite movie actresses, Billie Dove.) At the time of Billie's birth, her mother, Sadie Fagan, was 13 years old, and her father, Clarence Holiday (later a jazz guitarist in Fletcher Henderson's band), was 15; they married each other three years later. As a child Billie ran errands for prostitutes in a nearby brothel, and as a reward they allowed her to listen to their Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith records.
In 1928 she went to New York City with her mother, who secured work as a housemaid, but the 1929 depression soon left her mother unemployed. In 1932 Billie tried out for a job as a nightclub dancer, and when she was rejected, she spontaneously auditioned for a singing job and was hired. For the next few years she sang in a succession of Harlem clubs until her career received a boost from impresario John Hammond, who induced Benny Goodman to use her on a record in 1933. But it was through a series of superb recordings made between 1935 and 1939 that her international reputation was established; those performances are jazz classics not only for Billie's singing but also for the outstanding ensemble and solo work of the accompanying all-star groups led by pianist Teddy Wilson. During the late 1930s she was also a big band vocalist, first with Count Basie (1937) and then with Artie Shaw (1938).
Her relationship with Basie's star tenor saxophonist Lester Young is the stuff of legend: they were great musical collaborators and great friends for life (their lives, incidentally, followed a parallel disastrous course). He named her "Lady Day, " and that title (or simply "Lady") became her jazz world sobriquet from the mid-1930s on; she in turn labeled him "Pres" (the "President of Tenor Saxophonists"). Their musical symbiosis, especially on the 1935-1939 small-group recordings, is one of the miracles of jazz; on "This Year's Kisses, " "He's Funny That Way, " "A Sailboat in the Moonlight, " "Me, Myself and I, " "Mean to Me, " and a raft of other tunes tenor saxophone and voice interweave so sympathetically that they sound as if they're poured from the same bottle. After the late 1930s they rarely recorded together, but to the end remained soulmates. (They died the same year.) Billie's career reached its zenith in the very late 1930s. In 1938 she worked a long engagement at Cafe Society; the following year she joined Benny Goodman on a radio broadcast; she was regularly working the big New York theaters and the famous 52nd Street clubs, including Kelly's Stables and the Onyx Club—all in addition to her recording successes. Two songs of the period are noteworthy: the first, "Strange Fruit, " with a haunting lyric by Lewis Allan to which Billie contributed the music, is a graphic depiction of a lynching; her record company, Columbia, considered it too inflammatory and refused to issue it, but it was finally released by a small record company (Commodore) in 1939 and, ironically, became a big money-maker because of the tune on the record's other side, "Fine and Mellow, " a blues written by Billie. Another tune always associated with her was "Gloomy Sunday, " which was expressive of such deep despair that it was for a time barred from the airwaves (the contention was that it was inducive to suicide).
By the mid-1940s Billie had been arrested many times for narcotics violations, and after one arrest in 1947, at her own request, was placed for a year and a day in a federal rehabilitation center at Alderson, West Virginia. Just ten days after being released she gave a concert at Carnegie Hall, but thenceforth was barred by New York City police licensing laws from working in any place that served liquor. The absence of a cabaret card in effect meant that she could never again appear in a New York nightclub.
Neither of her husbands—trumpeter Joe Guy (whom she divorced in the 1940s) nor Louis McKay (who survived her)—seemed able or inclined to save Billie from herself. By the 1950s alcohol and marijuana had taken a toll; her voice grew unnaturally deep and grainy and occasionally cracked during performance. Nevertheless, her singing was sustained by her highly individual style, the intimacy she projected, and her special way with a lyric. In 1954 she toured Europe to wide acclaim, and in 1958 she made a memorable appearance in the television special "The Sound of Jazz, " surrounded by an all-star ensemble which included the three reigning tenor saxophone kings, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, and her beloved "Pres."
Billie made her final public appearance in a concert at the Phoenix Theatre, New York City, on May 25, 1959. She died in Metropolitan Hospital, New York City, on July 17, 1959, of "congestion of the lungs complicated by heart failure"; she had at the time of her death been under arrest in her hospital bed for over a month for illegal possession of drugs.
An elegiac poem written by Frank O'Hara, "The Day Lady Died" (1964), ends" … she whispered a song along the keyboard/ … and everyone and I stopped breathing"— lines that are evocative of the pindrop silence this extraordinary singer was able to command. Tall, sensually exotic, with a swatch of gardenias in her hair, she sang with her head tilted jauntily back and her fingers snapping to the beat; audiences unfailingly responded with hushed reverence.
Her early small-group recordings have been reissued in several boxed sets under the general title of "Billie Holiday: The Golden Years"; her best later work is to be found in "The First Verve Sessions" recorded in 1952 and 1954 with a Jazz at the Philharmonic group of all-stars that included trumpeter Charlie Shavers, tenor saxophonist Flip Phillips, pianist Oscar Peterson, and guitarist Barney Kessel.
Her autobiography, written in collaboration with William Dufty, Lady Sings the Blues (1956), is the most revealing work on her, but the 1973 movie version, bearing the same title, is sadly inaccurate. John Chilton's Billie's Blues (1975) is an excellent survey of her life and work in the recording years (that is, from 1933 to 1959). □