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date: 20 February 2020

Holiday, Billie [Harris, Elinore; Fagan, Eleanora; Lady Day]free

  • Donald Clarke

(b Philadelphia, PA, April 7, 1915; d New York, NY, July 17, 1959). American jazz singer. She heard records by Bessie Smith as a child, but Louis Armstrong was her biggest influence. She was one of the first jazz singers and is still widely regarded as the greatest by those who believe that the essence of jazz singing is to make a lyric come alive with personal meaning. She was usually called Eleanora as a child. Her father, Clarence Holiday, played guitar in Fletcher Henderson’s band, but never lived with her; her mother, Sadie, adopted the surname of her father, Charlie Fagan, around 1920, but neither Sadie nor Sadie’s mother had been married. The surname Harris, which appears on Holiday’s birth certificate, came from her mother’s side.

Billie Holiday, 1957.

D. Hunstein/Lebrecht Music and Arts
D. Hunstein/Lebrecht Music and Arts

Holiday grew up in the streets of Baltimore. She was locked up twice in the House of Good Shepherd for Colored Girls, once because she was truant from school and again because she had been a victim of statutory rape, but both times mainly because there was no one looking after her. By this time she was already singing in the back rooms of brothels and taverns. She went to New York around 1927, where she and her mother were both arrested for prostitution in 1929. As a teenager she worked in clubs in Harlem, where her strength of personality earned her the nickname Lady. The speakeasies had no sound systems, so she sang the same song at each table, improvising each chorus. John Hammond heard her and produced her first recordings in 1933 with a studio band led by Benny Goodman. These were typical novelties of the time and pitched too high for her. She appeared with Duke Ellington in a short film, Rhapsody in Black, in early 1935 and made a sensational debut at the Apollo, where the emcee Ralph Cooper advised Frank Schiffman to book her, famously saying: “It ain’t the blues… I don’t know what it is, but you got to hear her.” The name Billie may have come from the film star Billie Dove; she had been calling herself Halliday, but engaged for a return performance, she came back to the Apollo as Billie Holiday.

In July 1935 Holiday made the first of more than 100 recordings on which her fame mainly still rests. These were made quickly and cheaply for jukeboxes, using head arrangements played by small groups under Teddy Wilson’s leadership with whichever jazzmen happened to be in town; many of these turned out to be the greatest players of the era. Holiday’s recordings sold well enough that she was engaged to record under her own name as well as with Wilson. It is not true that the songs were second-rate. Holiday and Wilson chose the ones they liked best from a stack of 30 or 40 for each session, and many of them were hits at the time; nobody knew which ones would become standards. In any case she transmuted them into gold, bending notes and often recomposing a melody line. She sang behind the beat, endowing lyrics with languor, irony, resignation, and sexuality, depending on the song, and there was often an infectious joy. She was a musician taking her chorus like one of the others. Her vocal texture was coarse yet girlish, an acquired taste but profoundly affecting to many, and her timbre and time were unique. Some of her best recordings were effectively duets with the tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who named her Lady Day; she named him Prez—short for President—and the nicknames stuck as long as they lived.

Holiday toured with Count Basie in 1937 and Artie Shaw in 1938, and suffered racism on the road. By 1939 her recording contract was owned by Columbia, who allowed her to record for Milt Gabler’s Commodore label that year because Columbia didn’t want to record “Strange Fruit,” a setting of a powerful poem by Lewis Allen about the lynching of African Americans; this was a jukebox hit and was backed with her own song “Fine and Mellow.” After the musicians’ union recording ban of the early 1940s, Holiday made more recordings for Gabler. He subsequently took her to Decca, where he was a producer, because he wanted her to record “Lover Man,” which he thought would be a pop hit. Holiday asked for and got backing with strings, and “Lover Man” became her only Billboard chart entry, in 1945. Although her lyrical interpretations were always fine, some of the Decca recordings with strings have a slushy effect, but some of the later ones are better; in 1949 she recorded duets with her beloved Armstrong, including “My Sweet Hunk o’ Trash.” Her first solo concert, at Town Hall in New York in early 1946, was a success. In the same year she appeared in the film New Orleans, a dire Hollywood version of the history of jazz saved only by its musical content; Holiday and Armstrong played a maid and a butler respectively. Holiday had an addictive personality: she had discovered heroin by the early 1940s and was an alcoholic by the end of the decade. Her husband Jimmy Monroe, whom she had married in 1941, was often accused of introducing her to heroin, but there is no evidence of this, and it is likely that she found it by herself. In 1947 she was sentenced to a year in prison for possession. At a concert in Carnegie Hall in 1948 her excellent accompanist was the pianist Bobby Tucker; she broke the house record and then broke her own record at a return engagement a week later.

After Holiday’s year in prison, John Levy regarded her as a business investment, kept her short of money and beat her up. On the West Coast in 1949 they were both arrested for possession of opium; she beat the rap, and the next track she recorded for Decca was “’Tain’t nobody’s business if I do.” (During this period there was another John Levy who played bass for her, who later went into artist management and suffered from having the same name as the wannabe gangster.)

In 1950 Holiday was dropped by Decca and made a short film with Basie’s sextet. In 1953 she signed with Norman Granz, who produced her until 1957. The following year she toured Europe and performed at the first Newport Jazz Festival, where Lester Young made a surprise appearance after a period of estrangement from her, probably because of her drug addiction. By this time Holiday’s range had narrowed and her voice had deteriorated. Her unique timbre was still there, but she had become more and more unreliable, although some thought she was a better interpreter than ever. With Louis McKay she was arrested again in early 1956 for possession; he became her second husband so they couldn’t testify against each other, and they got probation. Accompanists in this period included Carl Drinkard and Mal Waldron, with whom she appeared at the Newport festival in 1957. Holiday made a poignant appearance with Young that year on the CBS TV program “Sound of Jazz.”

While making the album Lady in Satin for Columbia in 1958, Holiday asked for a string orchestra conducted by Ray Ellis. The latter reported that during the session she had trouble learning new material and was drinking on the job. Later that year Holiday appeared at the Monterey Jazz Festival and was clearly not well. Another album with Ellis on MGM was finished just weeks before her final illness, and on some tracks she sounded like a sprightly 70-year-old. She was 43. Holiday collapsed in May 1959 and was taken to a hospital in New York. She never left the hospital, where she was arrested for drug possession at a time when the city was struggling with the police department for more humane treatment for drug addicts.

Difficult, childlike, and a fantasist—she told everyone she was married to her boyfriends, but she didn’t divorce Monroe for nearly 15 years—Holiday was nevertheless loyal to friends and was loved by almost everyone who knew her. She roared through her life like an express train, making a lot of money and spending it all, and mostly doing as she pleased. She became and remains an international cult figure, her biographies translated into several languages, her recordings heard from the ceiling in French hypermarkets, but she became all things to all people, and perception of her is often simplistic. She had certainly been damaged by neglect in her childhood, and she associated with violent men because they were the kind she had grown up with, but she was often as tough as they were. She was predisposed to failure of her circulatory systems, like her mother and her grandmother, so her lifestyle was fatal. Famous for being a drug addict, she suffered from cirrhosis, and it wasn’t drugs that killed her, but alcohol. Her so-called autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues (1956), was as gloomy and doom-laden as possible because it was written to sell to the movies, while her ghost-writer, William Dufty, described her as the funniest woman he had ever known. The film version (1972) was a travesty: McKay had carried her dope, helped himself to her money, and beaten her up; as technical adviser on the film, he had himself written into the script as the hero.

Bibliography

  • B. Holiday with W. Dufty: Lady Sings the Blues (Garden City, NY, 1956/R1984 with discography by A.J. McCarthy)
  • G. Schuller: The Swing Era: the Development of Jazz 1930–1945 (New York, 1989/R), 527–47
  • S. Nicholson: Billie Holiday (London, 1995)
  • B. Green: “Billie Holiday,” Reading Jazz: a Gathering of Autobiography, Repotage, and Criticism from 1919 to Now, ed. R. Gottlieb (London, 1996/R), 933–59
  • D. Clarke: Wishing on the Moon: the Life and Times of Billie Holiday (New York, 1994, enlarged 2/2002 as Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon)
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