Billie Holiday will always be admired for her ability to communicate the underlying tragedy of life in a song. Her gift for getting to the heart of a lyric and making it her own put her at the forefront of jazz singers. What she lacked in virtuosity she more than made up for in style, conveying honesty and emotional depth, forever changing the way vocalists interpreted a song. Unique phrasing, timing, and soulful diction all contributed to her artistry. Billie worked with many of the finest sidemen in jazz and her recordings with Lester Young represent the cream of jazz vocal/instrument interplay.
Holiday was born into an erratic home life on April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia. Her last name was switched several times due to the illegitimacy of her parents' relationship. First named Eleanora Harris (from her mother Sadie), then changed to Sadie's father's name, Fagan. Father and musician Clarence Holiday abandoned Sadie and Eleanora before marriage entered the picture. By all accounts Billie's childhood was harrowing. She often lived with relatives while mother Sadie took menial jobs and apparently ran a brothel. Neglect and delinquency led to a stay in a reformatory at age ten. By age twelve Billie had become a prostitute.
In yet another invention of identity Eleanora assumed the name Billie after her favorite silent film star, Billie Dove. Now in her early teens, Billie was struck by the sounds of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith and made up her mind to become a singer. Billie moved with her mother to New York City in the late 1920s and began singing for tips at small Harlem clubs while doing domestic work by day. Her natural talents and musical instincts were confirmed quickly and she was soon singing in many of the uptown clubs.
One night, while subbing at a club for Monette Moore her fate was sealed. Melody Maker critic and talent scout John Hammond dropped in, heard Billie, and was captivated. Hammond, who came from a wealthy and socially prominent family and had powerful connections, declared Billie "the best jazz singer I had ever heard. He swiftly organized a recording session with the Benny Goodman Orchestra in November of 1933. Next, Hammond arranged some sessions with pianist Teddy Wilson. This led to eventual pairings with Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges, and Harry Carney, some of the greatest horn players of the period.
Wilson recognized Holiday's intuitive rapport with the saxophone and was probably most responsible for her initial pairing with tenor saxophonist Lester Young in 1937. Billie herself claimed "I don't think I'm singing. I feel like I'm playing a horn. Their sides together became instant classics and cemented their bond as truly magical chemistry.
Holiday's vocal technique owed more to individualism than trained skill. Yet limited range and lack of power were never a hindrance because she conveyed such emotional depth, exuding sadness and pain, a poignant vulnerability. It was this deep-rooted honesty that affected listeners so profoundly. Anchored by impeccable phrasing and timing she could get straight to the soul of a song, reshaping it into something real and very personal.
Musical collaborations with Count Basie and Artie Shaw in the late 30s inspired some of her most gratifying vocal performances. Billie continued attracting better quality material and her popularity blossomed. She was now a jazz star and finding the big band affiliations too confining, she went solo in 1938. She began assuming a moodier, torch singing style and recorded her most infamous song, "Strange Fruit, about a lynching. Yet as her career progressed in the 1940s Billie's decadent lifestyle began to pervade her art.
Her weakness for dubious and exploitive men plagued her adult life. Billie's first husband, Jimmy Monroe, was speculated to have introduced her to heroin and opium. She also drank heavily and her voice was slowly eroded by a fifty cigarettes per day habit. But it was her heroin addiction which finally destroyed her singing career. Constant drug charges, run-ins with the law, denial of her cabaret license, and a reputation for unreliability plagued her every turn. She even served a year in jail for a drug bust in 1947.
Billie often turned her pain and persecution into music in songs like "Don't Explain (addressing her husband's extra-marital affairs), "Good Morning Heartache, or "Gloomy Sunday. In 1952 she signed a new record contract and began rebuilding her career. Producer Norman Granz surrounded Billie with a variety of worthier musicians like Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Harry Edison, Oscar Peterson and Wynton Kelly in an effort to revitalize the old magic. Yet Billie's voice sounded ravaged, the music more melancholy. In exchange the performances contained greater nuance and emotion.
Unable to break free of heroin addition and heavy drinking Billie's physical state continued to deteriorate. She remained active with recordings and nightclub dates and also reunited with Lester Young for a television tribute to jazz in 1957 called The Sound of Jazz. In May of 1959 she was admitted to hospital for a liver ailment and was put under house arrest in her hospital bed for heroin possession. She died on July 17 of a kidney infection with $750 taped to one of her legs.
William P. Gottlieb