Billy Holiday

By Russ:

This lady’s unique and inimitable singing style was based on her natural, raw talent for very strong jazz vocal improvisation.   She sang the same way jazz musicians would instrumentally play a melody.

Billie Holiday had a seminal influence on jazz music and pop singing. Her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo.

~ BILLIE HOLIDAY ~

A distinguishing characteristic of Billie Holiday’s unique vocal delivery was her back-phrasing – a technique where the singer (or instrumentalist) is intentionally either behind or ahead of the beat.  In addition to that, her intonation, her phrasing and the emotion she delivered were unmatched. In September 1943, Life magazine wrote, “She has the most distinct style of any popular vocalist and is imitated by other vocalists.”

It should be mentioned, this type of singing was not entirely into it, but Billie seemed to take it much further, making it her own.  She is quoted as having said about her signature voice: “I hate straight singing.  I have to change a tune to my own way of doing it. That’s all I know.

“People don’t understand the kind of fight it takes to record what you want to record the way you want to record it,” Holiday said about being an artist in the music industry at the time.

Perhaps surprising, Billie had a lack of technical training, yet her diction, souful phrasing and acute dramatic intensity made her the outstanding jazz singer of her day.

White gardenias, worn in her hair, became one of Billie Holiday’s trademarks

Unfortunately, as her career was peaking,  Holiday got caught up in a downward spiral of drug and alcohol abuse and this took her from us at the early age of 44. By then she had released 38 solid chart-busting singles.

Her emotive voice, innovative techniques and touching songs will forever be remembered and enjoyed.  So much has already been written about this iconic jazz singer, that we will limit this compilation to some of the highlights of her career, including how she got “discovered”, and  of course  we will include lots of her significant songs during that period.

Videos:

1939 Strange Fruit – a song about anti-racism

In 1955, Holiday made her first appearance on The Tonight Show hosted by Steve Allen.

1956

 1957

1958

 

A Few of her Recordings

1935 Twenty Four Hours A Day

1935 I Wished On The Moon

1935 A Sunbonnet Blue

1936 I Cried For You

1936 Billie’s Blues (Billie Holiday composition)

1936 Moanin’ Low

1937 My Man

1937 Easy Living

1939 I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues

1939 Strange Fruit Holiday recorded Strange Fruit with an alternate label, Commodore, because Columbia would not allow it because of its subject matter. The piece is about the lynching of a black man.

1941 All Of Me

1944 I’ll Be Seeing You

1949 Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do

1952 Blue Moon

Ain’t Misbehavin’ / Billie Holiday & Her Orchestra 

New Orleans (with Louis Armstrong)

The Blues Are Brewing (with Louis Armstrong)

The Very Thought Of You

I’m A Fool To Want You

Crazy He Calls Me

Gloomy Sunday

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She co-wrote only a few songs, but several of them have become jazz standards, notably “God Bless the Child“, “Don’t Explain“, “Fine and Mellow“, and “Lady Sings the Blues“.

1915

Billie was born Eleanor Fagan  in Baltimore on April 7, 1915, to unwed teenage parents, Sarah “Sadie” Fagan and Clarence Halliday.  Sadie was only 13 and Clarence was 16.

Eleanora Fagan aged 2 in 1917

The first paragraph of Billie’s 1956 autobiography reads famously:

“Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was sixteen, and I was three.”

Clarence was not part of Billie’s childhood. He did not marry nor live with Sadie.

Clarence Halliday

Clarence left while his daughter was still a baby.  Billie’s mother was also a 13 year old teenager at the time, and whether because of inexperience or neglect, often left her daughter with uncaring relatives.

Holiday started skipping school, and she and her mother went to court over her truancy. She was then sent to the House of Good Shepherd, a facility for troubled African American girls, in January 1925. Only 9 years old at the time, Holiday was one of the youngest girls there.

She was returned to her mother’s care in August of that year. According to Donald Clarke’s biography, Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon, she returned to Good Shepherd in 1926 after she had been sexually assaulted.

Holiday grew up in jazz talent-rich Baltimore in the 1920s. As a young teenager, she served the beginning of her so-called “apprenticeship” by singing along with records by Bessie Smith or Louis Armstrong in after-hours jazz clubs.

mother Sadie Fagan and Billie Holiday

In 1928, when her mother, Sadie Fagan, moved to New York in search of a better job, Billie at the tender age of 13 soon followed her there.

Admired actress Billie Dove

She made her true singing debut in obscure Harlem nightclubs and adopted her professional name – Billie Holiday – “Billie” from an admired screen star Billie Dove, and “Holiday” from her father, Clarence Halliday.

Although Holiday never underwent any technical training and never even so much as learned how to read music, she quickly became an active participant in what was then one of the most vibrant jazz scenes in the country. She would move from one club to another, working for tips. She would sometimes sing with the accompaniment of a house piano player while other times she would work as part of a group of performers.

1930

– Holiday appears in various Harlem clubs

By the time she arrived in New York in her mid-teens, Billie was streetwise beyond the experiences of most girls her age. Although standing only  5-foot-5-inches tall, she was a big girl who carried herself with the poise of a much older, mature woman.

1933

– Holiday cuts her first records at the age of 18

At the age of 18 and after gaining more experience than most adult musicians can claim, it’s easy to see how Billie developed the moxie to talk her way into professional singing gigs with much older musicians. She also had connections in the music industry: her father played guitar in Fletcher Henderson’s band. She began singing in nightclubs in Harlem.

Enter John Hammond …

John Henry Hammond II (December 15, 1910 – July 10, 1987) was an American record producer, civil rights activist and music critic from the 1930s to the early 1980s. In his service as a talent scout, Hammond became one of the most influential figures in 20th century popular music.

In 1933 he heard the seventeen-year-old Billie Holiday perform in Harlem and arranged for her recording debut, on a Benny Goodman session.

1934  Riffin’ The Scotch / Billie Holliday with Benny Goodman 

(Thanks to Dunstan Prial for some of this write-up.)

 On a cold, clear night in February, 1933, John Hammond went on the town alone in search of music.  He made the trip up to Harlem on this particular night, he later claimed, because he wanted to see singer Monette Moore perform in the comfort of her own new speakeasy that she had recently established.

As it happened, Monette would not perform that night. She either was sick or had been called away as a last-minute substitute for Ethel Waters, for whom she was serving as understudy in a musical down on Broadway. But the sight of Moore’s replacement, Hammond later said, took his breath away. She couldn’t have been more than seventeen or eighteen years old. But her elegance and composure belied her youth. Dressed in an evening gown, she emerged from the dressing room and moved gracefully but with purpose across the floor through the array of small tables. She stopped at the piano, where she conferred quietly with her accompanist. Hammond was immediately struck by her presence; she commanded attention — and she hadn’t even begun to sing.

Then she did sing — and it was extraordinary. “I just absolutely was overwhelmed,” Hammond told the disc jockey Ed Beach in a 1973 interview. One of the first numbers she did was a silly, slightly suggestive tune called “Wouldja for a Big Red Apple?” “She was not a blue singer, but she sang popular songs in a manner that made them completely her own. She had an uncanny ear, an excellent memory for lyrics, and she sang with an exquisite sense of phrasing. She always loved [Louis] Armstrong’s sound and it is not too much to say that she sang the way he played horn. . .I decided that night that she was the best jazz singer I had ever heard.”

When telling the story of how he “discovered” Billie Holiday, Hammond always cited serendipity as the primary factor in his chancing upon her that night. “My discovery of Billie Holiday was the kind of accident I dreamed of, the sort of reward I received now and then by traveling to every place where anyone performed,” he wrote.

Holiday had been singing in small clubs around New York for at least two years before filling in for Moore that night in Harlem. Thus, despite her youth, she was an experienced performer at the time Hammond ran into her.

Her performance at Moore’s speakeasy struck Hammond with the force of a Dempsey hay-maker. Billie was mesmerizing.  She was, he observed, tall, full-bodied, and voluptuous to distraction. And her face was equally striking. The high, forceful cheekbones and broad, wide forehead recalled America’s ethnic history of the past two centuries, a story of generations of racial mingling among Negro slaves, white slave owner, and Native Americans.

Her skin was the color and texture of fresh-brewed coffee, light with cream and sugar. “She weighs over 200 pounds, is incredibly beautiful, and sings as well as anybody I ever heard,”  Hammond wrote shortly after seeing Holiday for the first time.

She also had magnificent bearing. Whatever the mood of the room, this singer was in complete control of it. It seemed to Hammond that she turned the traditional audience-singer relationship upside down. It was common at the time for singers to walk the floors of speakeasies and dance halls, accepting tips as they roamed from table to table. Singers generally acknowledged a tip with some small flourish, a slight bow, perhaps, or maybe a fingertip traced along the chin of a handsome man. Some singers might even linger and sing a few choice lyrics directly into the eyes of a blushing big spender. “Not Billie,” Hammond called. “I mean everything was improvised and her mood changed according to the stiff or not so stiff people who were at the tables.”

During a lush ballad her full, sensuous lips might shift slightly, offering a hint of a smile. Singing a more up-tempo number, she would fold her arms in front of her healthy bosom, and a scolding index finger might offer mock admonishment to an especially randy patron. The gestures were so easy and natural that they left Moore’s patrons feeling grateful that this singer had deigned to accept their tips.

Incredibly, all of these qualities paled in comparison to her actual singing. Hammond noted that her voice slipped into his ear just slightly — almost imperceptibly — behind the beat, a style that suggested her singing was merely an afterthought, a spontaneous response to the chance hearing of a beautiful melody. It was as if the song had wafted in through an open window, perhaps, and Holiday had instinctively joined in. And the voice had the same range of emotion as the young singer. It could be forceful and confident one minute, then utterly vulnerable the next. It could be flirty and teasing, but always stopped well short of vulgarity.

But it certainly wasn’t the strength of her voice that made it distinctive. There were plenty of singers around who could shake the rafters. Rather, there was a delicacy to it that required the listener to pay close attention. And its effect was lasting. The nightclub owner Barney Josephson once observed, “She never had a really big voice — it was small, like a bell that rang and went a mile.”

“She was seventeen when I first heard her, she was nearly eighteen,” Hammond recalled. “She was just unbelievable, she phrased like an improvising instrumentalist. She was the first singer I ever heard do that. She didn’t read music, didn’t have to. To me she was unbelievable.”

After that night at Moore’s, Hammond immediately set about promoting his new find, both through word of mouth and in his Melody Maker column. “For this month there has been a real find in the person of a singer called Billie Holiday [sic], step-daughter of Fletcher Henderson’s guitar player,” he wrote for his English readers.  He spent the next few months following Holiday around Harlem with the bass player Artie Bernstein.  To his dismay, he found that not everyone was as instantly convinced of her talent.  “It took months for me to persuade anybody that Billie could be recorded,” he told Ed Beach many years later.

1935

– Signed to Brunswick Records by John Hammond

In 1935 Holiday was signed to Brunswick Records by John Hammond to record current pop tunes of the day with jazz pianist Teddy Wilson in the new swing style for the growing jukebox trade. They were given free rein to improvise the material.

Teddy Wilson

Holiday’s improvisation of melody to fit the emotion was revolutionary. Their first collaboration produced  four sides:

These cuts have been deemed her “claim to fame and should be in every jazz enthusiast’s library.

Brunswick did not favor the recording session, because producers wanted Holiday to sound more like Cleo Brown. After “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” garnered success, however, the company began considering Holiday an artist in her own right.

She began recording under her own name a year later (on the 35-cent Vocalion label), producing a series of extraordinary performances with groups comprising the swing era’s finest musicians. The sessions were co-produced by Hammond and Bernie Hanighen.

With their arrangements, Wilson and Holiday took pedestrian pop tunes, such as the current #6 pop hit “Twenty-Four Hours a Day” and “Yankee Doodle Went To Town” and had their way with them, transforming them into jazz classics.

Twenty-Four Hours a Day” 

Yankee Doodle Went to Town“,

Most of Holiday’s recordings with Wilson or under her own name during the 1930s and early 1940s are regarded as important parts of the jazz vocal library. She was then in her twenties.

John Hammond had Billie record a couple of sides with Benny Goodman. The first, ‘Your Mother’s Son-In-Law’, gives no hint of her promise.

Picture

Symphony In Black

In September of 1935 Paramount Pictures released a nine-minute movie remarkable in several ways. Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life is one of the earliest cinematic explorations of African-American culture for a mass audience. It features Duke Ellington and his orchestra performing his first extended composition, “A Rhapsody of Negro Life”.   And perhaps most notably, it stars 19-year old Billie Holiday in her first filmed performance.

The one-reel movie, directed by Fred Waller, tells the story of Ellington’s “A Rhapsody of Negro Life,” using pictures to convey the images running through the musician’s mind as he composed and performed the piece.

Ellington’s “Rhapsody” has four parts: “The Laborers,” “A Triangle,” “A Hymn of Sorrow” and “Harlem Rhythm.” Holiday appears as a jilted and abused lover in “A Triangle.”

Holiday starred alongside Duke Ellington in the film. Her only previous screen appearance was as an uncredited extra in a nightclub scene in the 1933 Paul Robeson film, The Emperor Jones.

Holiday and Ellington rehearsing for Symphony In Black

Symphony in Black was produced over a ten-month period. Holiday was only 19 when her scenes were shot. She sings Ellington’s “Saddest Tale,” a song carefully selected by the composer to fit the young singer’s style. “Saddest tale on land or sea,” begin the lyrics, “Was when my man walked out on me.” In the book Billie Holiday: A Biography, author Meg Greene calls the performance “mesmerizing”:

Symphony in Black marked an important milestone in the development of Billie Holiday, the woman and the singer. Ellington’s deft handling enabled Billie to distinguish herself from other torch singers. She did not wear her emotions on her sleeve; instead, she revealed herself gradually as the song unfolded.

Her performance was carefully crafted and sophisticated, especially for a woman only 19 years old. This carefully woven tapestry of life and music was the origin of the persona that audiences came to identify with Billie. Other singers such as Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland may have more successfully established and cultivated an image, but Billie Holiday did it first.

1936

– Released “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess”

Summertime

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In 1936, a number of Billie Holiday recordings were released as singles.  11 of these records have been attributed chart positions in the Top 20, and five were in the Top 5.  These #5 hit songs were:  “These Foolish Things,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Who Loves You,” “That’s Life I Guess,” and I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.”

Working with Lester Young

Also in 1936 Holiday began working with jazz tenor saxophonist, Lester Young. Besides Teddy Wilson, Lester was another frequent accompanist. He had been a boarder at Billie’s mother’s house in 1934 and Billie had a special rapport with him.

Billie Holiday and Lester Young

1937

– Receives the nickname “Lady Day” from sax player Lester Young

It was Lester Young who nicknamed Billie “Lady Day”, and she called him “Prez”. The two toured Europe together with Count Basie’s orchestra ( for which Holiday was paid a then career high of $14 a day )!

Video Clip: The Pres serenades Billy Holiday with the smoothest sax solo ever

(Notice Gerry Mulligan and Colman Hawkins are also on this one – too cool)

– She teams up with the Count Basie Orchestra

In late 1937, Holiday had a brief stint as a big-band vocalist with Count Basie and his orchestra.

Count Basie

Basie had gotten used to Holiday’s heavy involvement in the band. He said,

“When she rehearsed with the band, it was really just a matter of getting her tunes like she wanted them, because she knew how she wanted to sound and you couldn’t tell her what to do.”

Holiday found herself in direct competition with the popular singer Ella Fitzgerald. The two later became friends. Fitzgerald was the vocalist for the Chick Webb Band, which was in competition with the Basie band.

Some of the songs Holiday performed with Basie were recorded:

They Can’t Take That Away from Me

Swing It Brother Swing

Holiday was unable to record in the studio with Basie, but she included many of his musicians in her own recording sessions along with Teddy Wilson.

Touring the U.S. in the 1930s meant coming head-on against racial discrimination. While with Basie in Detroit, a theatre manager insisted the light-skinned Holiday blacken her face so the audience would not mistake her for a white singer performing with black musicians.

1938

By February of 1938, Holiday was no longer singing for Basie. Various reasons have been given for her firing. Jimmy Rushing, Basie’s male vocalist, called her unprofessional.

According to All Music Guide, Holiday was fired for being “temperamental and unreliable”. She complained of low pay and poor working conditions and may have refused to sing the songs requested of her or change her style.

– She teams with Artie Shaw becoming the first black woman to work with a white orchestra

Artie Shaw made history when he signed Billie Holiday as his band’s vocalist in 1938, becoming the first white band leader to hire a full-time black female singer to tour the segregated Southern U.S.

Any Old Time

 

While touring with Artie Shaw’s mostly white band in the segregationist South, it was difficult just finding a restaurant where the band could all eat together and Billie would be asked to leave the restaurant through the back kitchen exit.

After recording “Any Old Time,” Holiday left the band due to hostility from audiences in the South, as well as from music company executives who wanted a more “mainstream” singer.

Symphony In Black

In September of 1935 Paramount Pictures released a nine-minute movie remarkable in several ways. Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life is one of the earliest cinematic explorations of African-American culture for a mass audience. It features Duke Ellington and his orchestra performing his first extended composition. And perhaps most notably, it stars Billie Holiday in her first filmed performance.

The one-reel movie, directed by Fred Waller, tells the story of Ellington’s “A Rhapsody of Negro Life,” using pictures to convey the images running through the musician’s mind as he composed and performed the piece. Ellington’s “Rhapsody” has four parts: “The Laborers,” “A Triangle,” “A Hymn of Sorrow” and “Harlem Rhythm.” Holiday appears as a jilted and abused lover in “A Triangle.”

Holiday starred alongside Duke Ellington in the film. Her only previous screen appearance was as an uncredited extra in a nightclub scene in the 1933 Paul Robeson film, The Emperor Jones.

Symphony in Black was produced over a ten-month period. Holiday was only 19 when her scenes were shot. She sings Ellington’s “Saddest Tale,” a song carefully selected by the composer to fit the young singer’s style. “Saddest tale on land or sea,” begin the lyrics, “Was when my man walked out on me.” In the book Billie Holiday: A Biography, author Meg Greene calls the performance “mesmerizing”:

Symphony in Black marked an important milestone in the development of Billie Holiday, the woman and the singer. Ellington’s deft handling enabled Billie to distinguish herself from other torch singers. She did not wear her emotions on her sleeve; instead, she revealed herself gradually as the song unfolded. Hers was a carefully crafted and sophisticated performance, especially for a woman only 19 years old. This carefully woven tapestry of life and music was the origin of the persona that audiences came to identify with Billie. Other singers such as Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland may have more successfully established and cultivated an image, but Billie Holiday did it first.

By the late 1930s, Holiday had toured with Count Basie and Artie Shaw, scored a string of radio and retail hits with Teddy Wilson, and became an established artist in the recording industry. Her songs “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Easy Living” were imitated by singers across America and were quickly becoming jazz standards.

1939 – Mainstream Success

– Debut performance of “Strange Fruit” at Café Society, New York’s first integrated nightclub

Holiday was recording for Columbia in 1939 when she was introduced to the song,”Strange Fruit” 

This was a song based on a poem about lynching written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx. Meeropol used the pseudonym “Lewis Allan” for the poem, which was set to music and performed at teachers’ union meetings. It was eventually heard by Barney Josephson, the proprietor of Café Society, an integrated nightclub in Greenwich Village, who introduced it to Holiday. She performed it at the club in 1939, with some trepidation, fearing possible retaliation.

– Records her first major session at Commodore

When Holiday’s producers at Columbia found the subject matter too sensitive, Milt Gabler agreed to record it for his Commodore Records label on April 20, 1939.

“Strange Fruit” remained in her repertoire for twenty years. She recorded it again for Verve. The Commodore release did not get any airplay, but the controversial song sold well, though Gabler attributed that mostly to the record’s other side, “Fine and Mellow”, which was a jukebox hit. ”

The version I recorded for Commodore,” Holiday said of “Strange Fruit,” “became my biggest-selling record.””Strange Fruit” was the equivalent of a top-twenty hit in the 1930s.

– “The Duchess” (Billie’s Mother) opens a restaurant

Holiday’s mother, Sadie Fagan, nicknamed “The Duchess,” opened a restaurant called Mom Holiday’s.  Fagan began borrowing large amounts from Holiday to support the restaurant. Holiday obliged but soon fell on hard times herself.

 

“I needed some money one night and I knew Mom was sure to have some,” she said. “So I walked in the restaurant like a stockholder and asked. Mom turned me down flat. She wouldn’t give me a cent.” The two argued, and Holiday shouted angrily,God bless the child that’s got his own,” and stormed out.

 

1941

– Billie co-writes and records the legendary “God Bless The Child”

With Arthur Herzog, Jr., a pianist, she co-wrote a song based on the lyric “God Bless the Child” and added music.

God Bless the Child” became Holiday’s most popular and most covered record. It reached #25 on the charts in 1941 and was third in Billboard’s songs of the year, selling over a million records.

1943

 –  She signed with Decca Records.

1946 Good Morning Heartache

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1944

– “Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be)”, written specifically for Billie, becomes her highest charted Pop hit to date, peaking at #16

Milt Gabler, in addition to owning Commodore Records, became an A&R man for Decca Records. He signed Holiday to Decca on August 7, 1944, when she was 29. Her first Decca recording was “Lover Man” (number 16 Pop, number 5 R&B), one of her biggest hits. 

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The success and distribution of “Lover Man” made Holiday a staple in the pop community, leading to solo concerts, rare for jazz singers in the late 40s.

Also in 1944, Holiday received Esquire Magazine’s Gold Award for Best Leading Female Vocalist. She would go on to receive similar awards in the following years.

 

1945 to End

Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and jazz critic Leonard Feather in 1945. Holiday sang with Ellington’s big band ten years before this photo, when she appeared in his film “Symphony in Black.”

In 1946, Holiday won the Metronome Magazine popularity poll.

Portrait of Billie Holiday and her pet, Mister, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Feb. 1947

1947 – Much to her satisfaction, she appeared with her idol Louis Armstrong in the film New Orleans – Unfortunately, she played the role of a maid.

Later that same year,  Holiday was arrested for narcotics possession.  She was sentenced to a year and a day of prison time and went to a federal rehabilitation facility in West Virginia. Because of her prison term, Holiday was not able to get a license to play in cabarets and clubs. However, she managed to play in New York’s Club Ebony with the help of the owner, John Levy, who would become her boyfriend and manager.

By 1947, Holiday was at her commercial peak, having made $250,000 in the three previous years.  She was ranked second in the Down Beat poll for 1946 and 1947, her highest ranking in that poll. She was ranked fifth in Billboard’s annual college poll of “girl singers” on July 6, 1947 (Jo Stafford was first).

With her artistry at its peak, Billie Holiday’s emotional life began a turbulent period during the mid-’40s. Already heavily into alcohol and marijuana, she began smoking opium early in the decade with her first husband, Johnnie Monroe. The marriage didn’t last, but hot on its heels came a second marriage to trumpeter Joe Guy and a move to heroin.

Joe Guy and Billie

She lost a good deal of money running her own orchestra with Joe Guy.  Her mother passed away in the late 1940s.

Her mother’s death soon after affected her deeply, and in 1947 she was arrested for possession of heroin and sentenced to eight months in prison.

Her addiction barely affected her singing at first, although her behavior grew increasingly unpredictable and she gained a reputation for unreliability. At last Holiday was earning real money, as much as $1,000 weekly, but about half that sum was going to pay for her habit. Nevertheless, she now had the public recognition she craved. In the first Esquire magazine poll (in 1943), the critics voted her best vocalist, topping Mildred Bailey and Ella Fitzgerald.

–   1948 Billie performs at Carnegie Hall

She received three curtain calls before a sold-out crowd.

Also in 1948, the singer appeared in a Broadway musical, Holiday on Broadway.

In 1953 she appeared on the ABC reality series The Comeback Story.

Billie Holiday struggled with addiction during her

Billie Holiday struggled with addiction during her career

1954

Holiday successfully toured in Europe. That same year,  she released her next full length album, “Billie Holiday”,  for Clef Records.

Billie Holiday, with Teddy Wilson at the piano and Milt Hinton on bass, at the Newport Jazz Festival in July 1954, five years from the close of her career and the end of her life.

 

1954 Video (slide show) – Another appearance at Carnegie Hall with Count Basie

This captures the performance of Billie Holiday and Count Basie performing together at Carnegie Hall on September 25, 1954 as part of Norman Granz’s new Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe, The Birdland All-Stars. This is a new setting for Holiday because she is singing songs that she usually sings with a trio with a big band orchestra. Critics said, “For Miss Holiday it seemed to be somewhat of an off night.” Her temporary accompanist Memry Midgett recalled that the whole day Billie had to take care of Louis McKay’s son who celebrated his birthday. The afternoon she had spent in town buying a birthday present and in the evening she had to attend the party and had to look after the guests before she and Holiday were put in a taxi to perform at Carnegie. During the way to Carnegie Hall Billie managed to get her hair done and to fix her make-up. The pictures in the video are from the even that night, including a picture with Charlie Parker.

Songs include “All of Me,” “Lover, Come Back to Me,” “My Man,” “Lover Man” and more. Enjoy!

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Rare Interview (1954)  “I Only Have Eyes For You” 

1956 – Doubleday Publishing company releases Lady Sings The Blues autobiography.

1956 All Or Nothing At All / You can hear how seriously declining health has taken its toll on her voice

1957

1957 – Billie Holiday married Mafia enforcer Louis McKay.

During the 1950s, her appearances became less frequent due to her alcohol and drug use. Holiday recorded about 100 new recordings on another label, Verve, from 1952 to 1959. Her voice became more rugged and vulnerable on these tracks than earlier in her career. During this period, she toured Europe, and made her final studio recordings for the MGM label in March of 1959.

1959 – Her final performance  on May 25th was in New York City.

Shortly after that, Holiday was brought to the hospital for heart and liver problems.  At the hospital she was ignorantly arrested for possession of heroin in spite of being gravely ill.

She died later that year.  More than 3,000 people attended the 44-year-old’s funeral.

CODA

In music, a coda (Italian for “tail”) is a passage that brings a piece of music to an end.

Despite her lack of technical training, Holiday’s unique diction, inimitable phrasing and acute dramatic intensity made her the outstanding jazz singer of her day. White gardenias, worn in her hair, became her trademark. “Singing songs like the ‘The Man I Love’ or ‘Porgy’ is no more work than sitting down and eating Chinese roast duck, and I love roast duck,” she wrote in her autobiography. “I’ve lived songs like that.”

Lester Young and Billie Holiday are known for creating some of the best jazz recordings ever, including songs This Year’s Kisses and Mean to Me.

Radio station WNYC host Jonathan Schwartz said that Holiday “started to do what Frank (Sinatra) would finish, which is to sing a song from the inside rather than the outside, so that the song became a part of the flesh and blood of the singer. That’s why they are the two greatest intimate singers.”

John Hammond spoke about the commercial impact of the Wilson-Holiday recordings from 1935 to 1938, calling them a great asset to Brunswick. The record label, according to Hammond, was broke and unable to record many jazz tunes. Wilson, Holiday, Young, and other musicians came into the studio without musical arrangements and improvised as they performed, dispensing with the expense of having written arrangements, so that the records they produced were cheap.

Holiday was never given any royalties for her work, instead being paid a flat fee, which saved the company money. Some of the records produced were quite successful, such as “I Cried for You“, which sold 15,000 copies. 

Hammond said of the record, “15,000 … was a giant hit for Brunswick in those days. I mean a giant hit. Most records that made money sold around three to four thousand.”

In 1972, her autobiography was made into a movie Lady Sings the Blues.  Diana Ross played the part of Holiday in the film.

Her God Bless the Child single was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1976.

1985 – A statue of Holiday was erected in Baltimore at the corner of Lafayette and Pennsylvania Avenues.  The 1,200-pound statue depicts Holiday in a strapless gown with gardenias in her hair and her mouth open.

Baltimore sculptor James Earl Reid created the tall bronze statue of Holiday.  It cost $113,000 to make the statue, according to the Baltimore Sun.  The statue of her in Baltimore stands 8-feet-6-inches.

The first dedication of the statue was in 1985 by then-mayor William Donald Schaefer. More than 200 people attended the dedication, the Sun reported.

1994 – The U.S. Postal Service honored Holiday with a stamp on Sept. 18, 1994.

Time magazine declared Strange Fruit the song of the century in 1999.

Strange Fruit was honored by the Library of Congress as one of the 50 songs to be added to the National Recording Registry in 2002.

In 2008, $76,000 was spent to restore Holiday’s statue in Baltimore, according to the Sun.

Billie Holiday sang at least 350 different songs during her lifetime.  She wore white gardenias in her hair, which would become her trademark.

Another trademark of hers was singing with her head tilted back.

Holiday was considered to being one of the highest paid performers of her era, but much of her earnings went to her drug addictions.

Her relationships were often abusive and her songs reflected the turbulence in her life, including T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do and My Man.

Billie Holiday was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987, years after her death.

Music historian Michael Brooks, who produced the compilation Billie Holiday: The Centennial Collection, an anthology of recordings from 1935-1945, says of Holiday: “She was hard-nosed, there’s no doubt about it. She didn’t care who she fought with or how it affected her career.”

Frank Sinatra was influenced by her performances on 52nd Street as a young man. He told Ebony magazine in 1958 about her impact:

With few exceptions, every major pop singer in the US during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius. It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me. Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years.

Holiday described her approach to performing, “I don’t think I ever sing the same way twice. The blues is sort of a mixed-up thing. You just have to feel it. Anything I do sing is part of my life.”

“Crazy He Calls me” single was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2010.

Billie Holiday was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2011.

Five-time Tony winner Audra McDonald played Billie Holiday in the Broadway production Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill in 2014.

In 2014, a public relations firm called Strange Fruit changed its name after receiving criticism for being racially insensitive.

The Apollo Theater acknowledged Holiday by inducting her into its Walk of Fame on April 6, 2015.

Further Biographical Information

The Many Faces of Billie Holiday – Documentary

Interviews with Billie


Discography

The discography of Billie Holiday consists of twelve studio albums, three live albums, twenty-four compilations, and five box sets.

Holiday recorded extensively for six labels: Columbia Records (on its subsidiary labels Brunswick Records, Vocalion Records, and OKeh Records), from 1933 through 1942; Commodore Records in 1939 and 1944; Decca Records from 1944 through 1950; briefly for Aladdin Records in 1951; Verve Records and its earlier imprint Clef Records, from 1952 through 1957; again for Columbia Records from 1957 to 1958 and MGM Records in 1959.

Many of Holiday’s recordings were released on 78-rpm records, before the advent of long-playing vinyl records, and only Clef, Verve, and Columbia issued Holiday albums during her lifetime that were not compilations of previously released material. Many compilations have been issued since her death, including comprehensive box sets and live recordings.

– Singles

Year Single Chart positions
US
Pop
US
R&B
1934 “Riffin’ the Scotch” 6
1935 What a Little Moonlight Can Do 12
“Twenty-Four Hours a Day” 6
“If You Were Mine” 12
1936 “You Let Me Down” 18
These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You) 5
“It’s Like Reaching for the Moon” 17
“No Regrets” 9
Summertime 12
A Fine Romance 9
“Let’s Call a Heart a Heart” 18
The Way You Look Tonight 3
Who Loves You? 4
“That’s Life, I Guess” 20
I Can’t Give You Anything but Love (Dear) 5
1937 Pennies from Heaven 3
I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm 4
“Please Keep Me in Your Dreams” 13
This Year’s Kisses 8
“Carelessly” 1
“How Could You” 12
Moanin’ Low 11
They Can’t Take That Away from Me 12
Mean to Me 7
Easy Living 15
“Yours & Mine” 16
Me, Myself, and I 11
“A Sailboat in the Moonlight” 10
“Getting Some Fun Out of Life” 10
“Trav’lin’ All Alone” 18
Nice Work If You Can Get It 14
1938 My Man 12
You Go to My Head 20
“I’m Gonna Lock My Heart” 2
1939 Strange Fruit 16
1941 God Bless the Child 25
1942 Trav’lin’ Light 23 1
1945 Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?)

–o–

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