About Billie Holiday (1915 - 1959)
Jazz Singer / Blues Singer
Born: 7 April 1915
Birthplace: Baltimore, Maryland
Died: 17 July 1959
Best Known As: The popular jazz singer known as "Lady Day"
Name at birth: Eleanora Fagan
Billie Holiday was one of the first and greatest of American jazz singers, known in equal parts for her unique and laconic timing, her wistful and brassy vocals, and her troubled personal life. Holiday began singing in Harlem clubs as a teenager, and first recorded (with Benny Goodman) in 1933. She was a sensation at New York's famous jazz club, The Apollo, and sang with the bands of Artie Shaw and Count Basie, among others. Holiday was nicknamed "Lady Day" during this era by saxophonist Lester Young, with whom she often recorded. In the 1940s she began using heroin and opium, and her last years were marked by her decline in health as a result of drink and drugs. Her most famous songs include "God Bless the Child," "Lover Man" and "My Man." She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an early influence in the year 2000.
Holiday's 1956 autobiography was titled Lady Sings the Blues. Diana Ross played Holiday in the 1972 film of the same name.
The first popular jazz singer to move audiences with the intense, personal feeling of classic blues, Billie Holiday changed the art of American pop vocals forever. Almost fifty years after her death, it's difficult to believe that prior to her emergence, jazz and pop singers were tied to the Tin Pan Alley tradition and rarely personalized their songs; only blues singers like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey actually gave the impression they had lived through what they were singing. Billie Holiday's highly stylized reading of this blues tradition revolutionized traditional pop, ripping the decades-long tradition of song plugging in two by refusing to compromise her artistry for either the song or the band. She made clear her debts to Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong (in her autobiography she admitted, "I always wanted Bessie's big sound and Pops' feeling"), but in truth her style was virtually her own, quite a shock in an age of interchangeable crooners and band singers.
With her spirit shining through on every recording, Holiday's technical expertise also excelled in comparison to the great majority of her contemporaries. Often bored by the tired old Tin Pan Alley songs she was forced to record early in her career, Holiday fooled around with the beat and the melody, phrasing behind the beat and often rejuvenating the standard melody with harmonies borrowed from her favorite horn players, Armstrong and Lester Young. (She often said she tried to sing like a horn.) Her notorious private life -- a series of abusive relationships, substance addictions, and periods of depression -- undoubtedly assisted her legendary status, but Holiday's best performances ("Lover Man," "Don't Explain," "Strange Fruit," her own composition "God Bless the Child") remain among the most sensitive and accomplished vocal performances ever recorded. More than technical ability, more than purity of voice, what made Billie Holiday one of the best vocalists of the century -- easily the equal of Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra -- was her relentlessly individualist temperament, a quality that colored every one of her endlessly nuanced performances.
Billie Holiday's chaotic life reportedly began in Baltimore on April 7, 1915 (a few reports say 1912) when she was born Eleanora Fagan Gough. Her father, Clarence Holiday, was a teenaged jazz guitarist and banjo player later to play in Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra. He never married her mother, Sadie Fagan, and left while his daughter was still a baby. (She would later run into him in New York, and though she contracted many guitarists for her sessions before his death in 1937, she always avoided using him.) Holiday's mother was also a young teenager at the time, and whether because of inexperience or neglect, often left her daughter with uncaring relatives. Holiday was sentenced to Catholic reform school at the age of ten, reportedly after she admitted being raped. Though sentenced to stay until she became an adult, a family friend helped get her released after just two years. With her mother, she moved in 1927, first to New Jersey and soon after to Brooklyn.
In New York, Holiday helped her mother with domestic work, but soon began moonlighting as a prostitute for the additional income. According to the weighty Billie Holiday legend (which gained additional credence after her notoriously apocryphal autobiography Lady Sings the Blues), her big singing break came in 1933 when a laughable dancing audition at a speakeasy prompted her accompanist to ask her if she could sing. In fact, Holiday was most likely singing at clubs all over New York City as early as 1930-31. Whatever the true story, she first gained some publicity in early 1933, when record producer John Hammond -- only three years older than Holiday herself, and just at the beginning of a legendary career -- wrote her up in a column for Melody Maker and brought Benny Goodman to one of her performances. After recording a demo at Columbia Studios, Holiday joined a small group led by Goodman to make her commercial debut on November 27, 1933 with "Your Mother's Son-In-Law."