April 7th marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of unique jazz vocal talent Billie Holiday. Born Elenora Fagan, Holiday redefined what it meant to be a female singer in a way that has remained unparalleled. From her troubled upbringing incorporating sexual abuse and prostitution, to her later struggles with alcohol and heroin addiction, Holiday lived the pain and anguish of her lyrics, and, despite her lack of musical education and limited vocal range (compounded in later years by the cumulative effects of long-term substance misuse), Lady Day’s soulful interpretation of the Great American Songbook has ensured her legacy has continued to influence long after her death.
There is some debate as to where Holiday was born (her own autobiography states Baltimore, but other sources cite Philadelphia), but the brute facts of her early upbringing are unfavourable: she was born into poverty to an unmarried mother aged just 13; her father was virtually absent and offered no support in her early life; her mother worked away for much of her childhood, leaving the young Holiday in the care of a rotation of family members; she was regularly in trouble for truanting school, and by the age of 11 had dropped out completely; and, at the age of just 11, on Christmas Eve her mother caught a neighbour attempting to rape her. By 1928, Holiday’s mother had moved to Harlem, New York, and a year later Billie, by then working as an errand girl in a brothel, followed from Baltimore. Not yet aged 14, Billie found herself working with her mother as a prostitute; after just a few months the pair were arrested and sent to prison, then the workhouse.
Despite this unfortunate leitmotif concerning the world’s oldest profession in Holiday’s formative years, it was, in fact, whilst working in brothels that her earliest and, arguably, greatest, musical influence came: exposure to the records of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, which Billie would sing along to. Following her release from prison, Holiday set about looking for any work she could get- no mean feat in a country on the cusp of the Great Depression. As legend has it, Holiday auditioned for the role of a dancer at a night club and was turned down, though before she left the pianist, perhaps taking pity on her, enquired if she could sing. After a short audition, she was hired, and soon after took her stage name, borrowing from actress Billie Dove, and her father Clarence Holiday.
After working the nightclub circuit for a couple of years, Billie got her first big break at the age of 18 when jazz producer John Hammond heard her singing. Hammond introduced Billie to emerging clarinettist and bandleader Benny Goodman, and it was with Goodman that she was to have her first recording successes. By 1936 Holiday was recording with tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who first gave her the famous nickname “Lady Day”, and she was signed to Columbia records. During the late 1930s Holiday toured and sang with two of the great bandleaders of the day, Count Basie and Artie Shaw. It was whilst performing with Shaw’s all-white band that Holiday experienced the racism of pre-Civil Rights era America, particularly whilst touring the segregated Southern states. These experiences were undoubtedly a factor when Holiday was introduced to the 1937 poem Strange Fruit by Jewish teacher Lewis Allen. Although the poem had already been set to music at this point, Holiday’s remains the definitive version of this song, and her haunted, pained vocal perfectly captures the gravity of the grim metaphor illustrated by the lyrics: lynched bodies of African-Americans are presented as “a strange and bitter crop” hanging from the poplar trees of the Deep South. Holiday’s record label, Columbia, would not allow her to record a song with such a sensitive subject matter, and so it was recorded and released in 1939 on Commodore Records, becoming a hit in the process and increasing Holiday’s fame and popularity. Hits followed, including signature song God Bless the Child, a song supposedly written by Holiday as a result of an argument with her mother over money.
Although Holiday’s star was in the ascendant, her personal life continued to be chaotic. She was married twice and had numerous affairs throughout her life, with both men and women. Already a heavy user of alcohol and marijuana, Holiday began smoking opium with her abusive first husband, playboy James Monroe. Whilst still married to Monroe (the pair divorced after five years in 1947) Holiday began a relationship with trumpeter James Guy, who introduced her to heroin, an addiction that was to mar the rest of her life, and in 1947 the pair were arrested for narcotic possession. Holiday was sentenced to a year and a day in a federal reformatory in Virginia, and whilst this (albeit very briefly) put an end to her dependency on opiates, her conviction meant that she was no longer permitted to work the night club scene of New York, depriving her of a major income source. In spite of this, she was still permitted to perform at concert halls, and just days after her release she performed to a record sold out crowd at Carnegie Hall.
As the 1950s commenced, Holiday’s lifestyle began to catch up with her, and, drinking heavily and relapsing into heroin use, her health began to deteriorate to noticeable effect on her voice. Signed to the Verve record label at this point, in 1956 Holiday released an autobiography and accompanying album Lady Sings the Blues to critical acclaim. In 1957 Holiday married again- this time to Mafia enforcer Louis McKay, who, characteristically for Billie’s taste in men, was also violent towards her. By 1959 Holiday had cirrhosis of the liver, and was ordered to stop drinking by her doctor, though she soon relapsed and was taken to the New York Metropolitan Hospital on May 31st with liver and heart disease. In one final sad twist, a small amount of heroin was found in her possession and Holiday was arrested and handcuffed to her hospital bed as she lay dying, with police posted to guard her room. She died from pulmonary oedema and heart failure, resulting from liver cirrhosis, on July 17th 1959 aged just 44, virtually penniless as a result of financial exploitation by those around her, as well as the monetary cost of her addictions.
Lady Day’s legacy continues to be felt today, and, with the exception of her two idols Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, some would argue Billie Holiday to be the most prestigious jazz singer of all time in terms of scope, with virtually every jazz vocalist since, from Frank Sinatra to Amy Winehouse, citing her as a major influence. An unrivalled interpreter and composer of a literal plethora of jazz standards, in the century since her birth we have not again seen a talent quite like Lady Day.
<iframe src="https://embed.spotify.com/?uri=spotify%3Auser%3Ams_smith86%3Aplaylist%3A28JN8393Vg3bu56zLIkKSv" width="300" height="380" frameborder="0" allowtransparency="true"></iframe>