Holiday, Billie [Fagan, Eleanora; Harris, Elinore; Lady Day]
- James Lincoln Collier
(b Philadelphia, April 7, 1915; d New York, July 17, 1959). American jazz singer. Her early life is obscure, as the account given in her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, is inaccurate. Her father abandoned the family early and refused to acknowledge his daughter until after her first success. At some point in her childhood her mother moved to New York, leaving her in the care of her relatives who, according to Holiday, mistreated her. She did menial work, had little schooling, and in 1928 went to New York to join her mother. Again according to her own story she was recruited for a brothel, and was eventually jailed briefly for prostitution. At some point after 1930 she began singing at a small club in Brooklyn, and in a year or so moved to Pods’ and Jerry’s, a Harlem club well known to jazz enthusiasts. In 1933 she was working in another Harlem club, Monette’s, where she was discovered by the producer and talent scout John Hammond. Hammond immediately arranged three recording sessions for her with Benny Goodman and found engagements for her in New York clubs. In 1935 he began recording her regularly, usually under the direction of Teddy Wilson, with studio bands that included many of the finest jazz musicians of the day. These recordings, made between 1935 and 1942, constitute a major body of jazz music; many include work by Lester Young, with whom Holiday had particular empathy. Though aimed mainly at the black jukebox audience, the recordings caught the attention of musicians throughout the USA, and soon other singers were working in Holiday’s light, rhythmic manner.
Popularity with a wider audience came more slowly. Holiday joined Count Basie in 1937 and Artie Shaw in 1938, becoming one of the first black singers to be featured with a white orchestra. Then, in 1939, she began an engagement at Cafe Society (Downtown), an interracial night club in Greenwich Village which quickly became fashionable with intellectuals and the haut monde, especially those on the political left. At about the same time she recorded for Commodore a song about the lynching of blacks called Strange Fruit; it was admired by intellectuals, and very quickly Holiday began to acquire a popular following. She started to have success with slow, melancholy songs of unrequited love, particularly Gloomy Sunday (1941, OK), a suicide song, and Lover Man (1944, Decca). By the end of the 1940s she was a popular star, and in 1946 took part in the film New Orleans with Louis Armstrong and Kid Ory.
At the same time Holiday’s private life was deteriorating. She started using hard drugs in the early 1940s and was jailed on drug charges in 1947 after a highly publicized trial. She compulsively attached herself to men who mistreated her, and she began drinking heavily. Her health suffered; she lost most of her by then substantial earnings, and her voice coarsened through age and mistreatment. Although she continued to sing and record, and to tour frequently until the mid-1950s, it was no longer with her former spirit and skill.
Holiday is often considered the foremost female singer in jazz history, a view substantiated by her influence on later singers. Her important work is found in the group recordings made, mostly for Hammond, between 1936 and 1944. Her vehicles were mainly popular love songs, some of them long forgotten, others among the best of the time. Her voice was light and untrained, but she had a fine natural ear to compensate for her lack of musical education. She always acknowledged her debt to Armstrong for her singing style, and it is certainly in emulation of him that she detached her melody line from the ground beat, stretching or condensing the figures of the melody, as on the opening of Did I remember? (1936, Voc./OK). More than nearly any other singer, Holiday phrased her performances in the manner of a jazz instrumental soloist, and accordingly she has to be seen as a complete jazz musician and not merely a singer. Nevertheless, her voice, even in the light and lively numbers she often sang during her early period, carried a wounded poignancy which was part of her attraction for general audiences. Although Holiday claimed also to have taken Bessie Smith as her model, she sang few blues, and none in the powerful, weighted manner of Smith. She was, however, a fine blues singer, as for example on Fine and Mellow (1939, Com.), which she built around blue thirds descending to seconds to create an endless tension perfectly suited to the forlorn text.
- B. Holiday and W. Dufty: Lady Sings the Blues (Garden City, NY, 1956/R) [incl. discography]
- J.L. Collier: The Making of Jazz: a Comprehensive History (New York, 1978)
- J. Millar: Born to Sing: a Discography of Billie Holiday (Copenhagen, n.d. [c1979];rev. 1994 as Fine and Mellow: a Discography of Billie Holiday)
- J. White: Billie Holiday (Tunbridge Wells, 1987) [incl. discography]
- G. Schuller: ‘The Great Soloists: Billie Holiday’, The Swing Era: the Development of Jazz, 1930–1945 (New York, 1989), 527–47
- R. O’Meally: Lady Day: the Many Faces of Billie Holiday (New York, 1991)
- D. Clarke: Wishing on the Moon: the Life and Times of Billie Holiday (London, 1994)
- S. Nicholson: Billie Holiday (London, 1995)