Nicknamed Lady Day by her sometime collaborator Lester Young, Holiday was a seminal influence on jazz and pop singing. Her vocal style — strongly inspired by instrumentalists — pioneered a new way of manipulating wording and tempo, and also popularized a more personal and intimate approach to singing. Critic John Bush wrote that she "changed the art of American pop vocals forever. She co-wrote only a few songs, but several of them have become jazz standards, notably "God Bless the Child", "Don't Explain", and "Lady Sings the Blues".
Billie Holiday had a difficult childhood, which greatly affected her life and career. Much of her childhood is clouded by conjecture and legend, some of it propagated by her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, first published in 1956 and later revealed to contain many inaccuracies.
Her professional pseudonym was taken from Billie Dove, an actress she admired, and Clarence Holiday, her probable father. At the outset of her career, she spelled her last name "Halliday", presumably to distance herself from her neglectful father, but eventually changed it back to "Holiday".
There is some controversy regarding Holiday's paternity, stemming from a copy of her birth certificate in the Baltimore archives that lists the father as a "Frank DeViese". Some historians consider this an anomaly, probably inserted by a hospital or government worker.
Thrown out of her parents' home in Baltimore after becoming pregnant at thirteen, Billie's mother, Sadie Fagan, moved to Philadelphia where Billie was born. Mother and child eventually settled in a poor section of Baltimore. Her parents married when she was three, but they soon divorced, leaving her to be raised largely by her mother and other relatives. At the age of 10, she reported that she had been raped. That claim, combined with her frequent truancy, resulted in her being sent to The House of the Good Shepherd, a Catholic reform school, in 1925. It was only through the assistance of a family friend that she was released two years later. Scared by these experiences, Holiday moved to New York City with her mother in 1928. In 1929 Holiday's mother discovered a neighbor, Wilbert Rich, in the act of raping her daughter; Rich was sentenced to three months in jail.
According to Billie Holiday's own account, she was recruited by a brothel, worked as a prostitute in 1930, and was eventually imprisoned for a short time for solicitation. It was in Harlem in the early 1930s that she started singing for tips in various night clubs. According to legend, penniless and facing eviction, she sang "Travelin All Alone" in a local club and reduced the audience to tears. She later worked at various clubs for tips, ultimately landing at Pod's and Jerry's, a well known Harlem jazz club. Her early work history is hard to verify, though accounts say she was working at a club named Monette's in 1933 when she was discovered by talent scout John Hammond.
Hammond arranged for Holiday to make her recording debut on a 1933 Benny Goodman date, and Goodman was also on hand in 1935, when she continued her recording career with a group led by pianist Teddy Wilson. Their first collaboration included "What A Little Moonlight Can Do" and "Miss Brown To You", which helped to establish Billie Holiday as a major vocalist. She began recording under her own name a year later, producing a series of extraordinary performances with groups comprising the Swing Era's finest musicians.
Wilson was signed to Brunswick by John Hammond for the purpose of recording current pop tunes in the new Swing style for the growing jukebox trade. They were given free rein to improvise the material. Holiday's amazing method of improvising the melody line to fit the emotion was revolutionary (Wilson and Holiday took pedestrian pop tunes like "Twenty Four Hours A Day" or "Yankee Doodle Never Went To Town" and turned them into jazz classics with their arrangements). With few exceptions, the recordings she made with Wilson or under her own name during the 1930s and early 1940s are regarded as important parts of the jazz vocal library.
Among the musicians who accompanied her frequently was tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who had been a boarder at her mother's house in 1934 and with whom she had a special rapport. "Well, I think you can hear that on some of the old records, you know. Some time I'd sit down and listen to 'em myself, and it sound like two of the same voices, if you don't be careful, you know, or the same mind, or something like that. Young nicknamed her "Lady Day" and she, in turn, dubbed him "Prez." She did a three-month residency at Clark Monroe's Uptown House in New York in 1937. In the late 1930s, she also had brief stints as a big band vocalist with Count Basie (1937) and Artie Shaw (1938). The latter association placed her among the first black women to work with a white orchestra, an arrangement that went against the tenor of the times.
When Holiday's producers at Columbia found the subject matter too sensitive, Milt Gabler agreed to record it for his Commodore Records. That was done in April, 1939 and "Strange Fruit" remained in her repertoire for twenty years. She later recorded it again for Verve. While the Commodore release did not get airplay, the controversial song sold well, though Gabler attributed that mostly to the record's other side, "Fine and Mellow", which was a jukebox hit.
Holiday continued to record for Decca until 1950, including sessions with the Duke Ellington and Count Basie orchestras, and two duets with Louis Armstrong. Holiday's Decca recordings featured big bands and, sometimes, strings, contrasting her intimate small group Columbia accompaniments. Some of the songs from her Decca repertoire became signatures, including "Don't Explain" and "Good Morning Heartache".
Holiday stated that she began using hard drugs in the early 1940s. She married trombonist Jimmy Monroe on August 25, 1941. While still married to Monroe, she hooked up with trumpeter Joe Guy, her drug dealer, as his common law wife. She finally divorced Monroe in 1947, and also split with Guy. In 1947 she was jailed on drug charges and served eight months at the Alderson Federal Correctional Institution for Women in West Virginia. Her New York City Cabaret Card was subsequently revoked, which kept her from working in clubs there for the remaining 12 years of her life, except when she played at the Ebony Club in 1948, where she opened under the permission of John Levy.
By the 1950s, Holiday's drug abuse, drinking, and relations with abusive men led to deteriorating health. As evidenced by her later recordings, Holiday's voice coarsened and did not project the vibrance it once had. However, she retained — and, perhaps, strengthened — the emotional impact of her delivery (See below).
On March 28, 1952, Holiday married Louis McKay, a Mafia enforcer. McKay, like most of the men in her life, was abusive, but he did try to get her off drugs. They were separated at the time of her death, but McKay had plans to start a chain of Billie Holiday vocal studios, a la Arthur Murray dance schools.
Her late recordings on Verve constitute about a third of her commercial recorded legacy and are as well remembered as her earlier work for the Columbia, Commodore and Decca labels. In later years her voice became more fragile, but it never lost the edge that had always made it so distinctive. On November 10, 1956, she performed before a packed audience at Carnegie Hall, a major accomplishment for any artist, especially a black artist of the segregated period of American history. Her performance of "Fine And Mellow" on CBS's The Sound of Jazz program is memorable for her interplay with her long-time friend Lester Young; both were less than two years from death. (see the clip here)
Holiday first toured Europe in 1954, as part of a Leonard Feather package that also included Buddy DeFranco and Red Norvo. When she returned, almost five years later, she made one of her last television appearances for Granada's "Chelsea at Nine", in London. Her final studio recordings were made for MGM in 1959, with lush backing from Ray Ellis and his Orchestra, who had also accompanied her on Columbia's Lady in Satin album the previous year — see below). The MGM sessions were released posthumously on a self-titled album, later re-titled and re-released as Last Recordings. Her final public appearance, a benefit concert at the Phoenix Theater in New York's Greenwich Village, took place on May 25, 1959. According to the evening's masters of ceremony, jazz critic Leonard Feather and TV host Steve Allen, she was only able to make it through two songs, one of which was "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do."
Holiday's autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, was ghostwritten by William Dufty and published in 1956. Dufty, a New York Post writer and editor then married to Holiday's close friend Maely Dufty, wrote the book quickly from a series of conversations with the singer in the Duftys' 93rd Street apartment, drawing on the work of earlier interviewers as well. His aim was to let Holiday tell her story her way.
On May 31, 1959, she was taken to Metropolitan Hospital in New York suffering from liver and heart disease. Police officers were stationed at the door to her room. She was arrested for drug possession as she lay dying. Holiday remained under police guard at the hospital until she died from cirrhosis of the liver on July 17, 1959. In the final years of her life, she had been progressively swindled out of her earnings, and she died with $0.70 in the bank and $750 (a tabloid fee) on her person.
Her distinct delivery made Billie Holiday's performances instantly recognizable throughout her career. Her voice lacked range and was somewhat thin, plus years of abuse eventually altered the texture of her voice and gave it a prepossessing fragility. Nonetheless, the emotion with which she imbued each song remained not only intact but also profound.. Her last major recording, a 1958 album entitled Lady in Satin, features the backing of a 40-piece orchestra conducted and arranged by Ray Ellis, who said of the album in 1997:
Billie Holiday was posthumously inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, which is a special Grammy award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least twenty-five years old, and that have "qualitative or historical significance."
|Billie Holiday: Grammy Hall of Fame Awards|
|Year Recorded||Title||Genre||Label||Year Inducted||Notes|
|1944||"Embraceable You"||Jazz (single)||Commodore||2005|
|1958||Lady in Satin||Jazz (album)||Columbia||2000|
|1945||"Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?)"||Jazz (single)||Decca||1989|
|1939||"Strange Fruit"||Jazz (single)||Commodore||1978||Listed also in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress in 2002|
|1941||"God Bless the Child"||Jazz (single)||Okeh||1976|
|2002||Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday||Columbia 1933-1944||Winner|
|1994||The Complete Billie Holiday||Verve 1945-1959||Winner|
|1992||Billie Holiday — The Complete Decca Recordings||Verve 1944-1950||Winner|
|1980||Billie Holiday — Giants of Jazz||Time-Life||Winner|
|2004||Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame||Inducted||Jazz at Lincoln Center, New York|
|2000||Rock and Roll Hall of Fame||Inducted||Category: "Early Influence"|
|1997||ASCAP Jazz Wall of Fame||Inducted|
|1979||Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame||Inducted||Location: Oceanside, CA|
|1947||Esquire Magazine Gold Award||Best Leading Female Vocalist||Jazz award|
|1946||Esquire Magazine Silver Award||Best Leading Female Vocalist||Jazz award|
|1945||Esquire Magazine Silver Award||Best Leading Female Vocalist||Jazz award|
|1944||Esquire Magazine Gold Award||Best Leading Female Vocalist||Jazz award|
The Verve box set includes the following live recordings: