Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Holiday, Billie

The polarities of life and art collided with such violence during the forty-four years of singer Billie Holiday’s life that they became bonded into one immutable whole. Together they gave force to the Billie Holiday legend, a legend that has grown with increasing definition since her death in 1959. As a result, the image of Billie Holiday-as-all-purpose-victim, part romantic martyr and part heroine of excess, has often obscured her artistry. Yet the essential truth about Billie Holiday is that she was a great artist, not because of her hedonistic and much publicized lifestyle, but in spite of it. She is an icon of twentieth century music who has influenced, both directly and indirectly, vernacular singing as we know it today.

Holiday’s place of birth is usually given as Baltimore where a statue has been erected to commemorate her achievements, but research by her biographer Stuart Nicholson established from three separate sources that she was born in Philadelphia at 2.30am on April 7, 1915 to Sarah ‘Sadie’ Harris. Her birth registration gives her name as ‘Elinore’ (sic) and her father as Frank DeViese, however, she would go to the grave believing her father was Clarence Holiday, who after military service between 1917-19 became a musician, later playing banjo and guitar with bandleader Fletcher Henderson.

Sadie Harris was a feckless mother, frequently leaving her daughter Eleanora in the care of her half-sister’s husband’s mother, Martha Miller, for long periods. A lack of parental supervision led to cutting school on such a spectacular scale she was committed to Baltimore’s Catholic-run House of Good Shepherd on January 5, 1925 and was paroled after nine months. On December 24, 1926, she experienced the trauma of being raped by a neighbour, Wilbert Rich, and was again committed to the House of Good Shepherd as “a state witness for the prosecution,” for nine weeks.

A casual job as a cleaner at a local bordello led to the discovery of jazz, and in particular Louis Armstrong. However, in 1928 Sadie again left her daughter in care to try her luck in Harlem, sending for her in early 1929. Barely a month after Eleanora’s fourteenth birthday she was arrested on May 2, 1929, along with her mother and eight other women, for vagrancy, a charge frequently used for those suspected of solicitation. In a life already filled with incident, she was sent to hospital, followed by one hundred days on Blackwell’s Island. On release in October 1929, she began singing with saxophonist Kenneth Hollon in small night clubs and it was around this time she changed her name to Billie Holiday.

Working as a waitress in places such as Mexico’s on 133rd Street in Harlem, she became known for singing for tips while serving customers. Gradually she made the transition from singing waitress to singer and was spotted by entrepreneur John Hammond in 1932. The following year she made her recording debut with a Benny Goodman pick-up unit that would eventually lead to a record deal with Brunswick as vocalist for a series of sessions under the leadership of pianist Teddy Wilson.

With Wilson she created some of the great classics of jazz during the 1930s including, ‘I Wished on the Moon,’ ‘ "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," "I Cried for You," "Summertime," and "This Years Kisses." In 1936 she was given a contract under her own name by Vocalion, but continued to record with Wilson. When they were joined by Lester Young as a sideman, the inspirational ‘two-of-the-same-voice’ collaborations of Holiday and Young epitomized jazz at its highest level of creativity and represented the pinnacle of her ‘Swing Song’ period ? "Sun Showers," "I’ll Get By," "Me Myself and I," "A Sailboat in the Moonlight," "He’s Funny That Way," "When You’re Smiling," "Back In Your Own Backyard" and "All of Me."

In March 1937 she joined Count Basie’s orchestra for almost a year before becoming a member of Artie Shaw’s orchestra in March 1938. She left on November 19, 1938 having made one record with the band called "Any Old Time." Opening at Café Society in Greenwich Village on December 22, 1938 she became and immediate hit with café crowd. Here she met Abel Meeropol (who wrote under the name of Lewis Allen) and began performing his song called "Strange Fruit."

Contemporary reports say her performance of the song was stunning, but Columbia refused to record it because the lyrics depicted a lynching in the South, so it was put out by the independent Commodore Records label and promptly became a minor hit. By now Holiday had become a consummate night club performer, frequently appearing in 52nd Street clubs where she became known as the ‘Queen of 52nd Street.’

On August 25, 1941 she married Jimmy Monroe, brother of Clark Monroe of Monroe’s Uptown House, but in May 1942, Monroe was arrested on the West Coast for drug smuggling. Holiday travelled to Hollywood and opened at the Trouville Club with Lester Young to pay for Monroe’s defence. In the event, Monroe was convicted, but lawyers fees took much of Holiday’s money, leading her to record 'Trav’lin Light," an under appreciated Holiday classic, with Paul Whiteman for the return fare to New York. Here she became a mainstay at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street throughout 1943 and 1944, a period when she became addicted to heroin.

In August 1944 she signed with the Decca record label and under the guidance of producer Milt Gabler produced classics like "Lover Man" and "That Old Devil Called Love." Her mother Sadie died October 6, 1945 which was a blow which many say she never recovered from. The same year she appeared in the motion picture New Orleans, but filming was marred by addiction problems. Returning to 52nd Street she was made to confront her addiction by her manager Joe Glaser and a period of rehabilitation in private nursing home followed. However, her pattern of addiction continued unabated, resulting in Glaser betraying her to Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

She was arrested after a week at the Earle Theatre in Philadelphia on May 16, 1947 and despite the flimsy evidence, Glaser refused her legal representation. Holiday was thus sentenced to year and day on May 27, 1947 and sent to the Federal Reformatory for Women, Alderston, Virginia where she remained in custody until March 16 1948. On release she gave two hugely successful concerts at Carnegie Hall but the reality of her situation was that her prison conviction meant she was denied a Cabaret Card, essential for working in New York clubs. Gradually, life began to collapse around her as without prestige of regularly playing New York her asking price began to drift.

Appearing at Billy Berg’s West Coast club, a bizarre incident with knife hit papers, and then an arrest for possession of narcotic drugs, although this time she was acquitted. Dropped by Decca in 1950, her life had become a round of club work and a daily struggle to score. In 1952 she began recording for Norman Granz’s Clef (later Verve) label creating what many claim are latter day classics – Music for Torching, Body and Soul, Songs for Distingué Lovers. However, she was arrested again while playing in Philadelphia on February 23, 1956 for possession. In summer that year her ghosted autobiography Lady Sings The Blues was published, and a Carnegie Hall concert in November was mounted to re-launch her career – part of the concert was later released on Verve as Lady Sings the Blues.

In 1957 Granz decided not to renew her contract as she had become increasingly difficult to work with, not that you would guess from a December TV appearance on The Sound of Jazz that provided an indelible picture of her at work. In 1958 she recorded Lady in Satin for Columbia, and it was clear the ravages of her lifestyle had caught up with her in what was a moving Parthian shot. On May 30, 1959 she collapsed and was admitted to hospital, where she subsequently died on July 15, 1959. By then she was virtually penniless, relying on handouts from her manager to pay for basics such as rent and food.

Contributor: Stuart Nicholson