Billie Holiday was the pre-eminent jazz singer of her day and among the most revered vocalists of the century.
Although her brief life was fraught with tragedy, Holiday left a transcendent legacy of recorded work. Her pearly voice, exquisite phrasing and tough-tender persona influenced the likes of Janis Joplin and Diana Ross, among others. She performed and recorded in a jazzy “swing-sing” style from 1933 to 1958 with pianist-bandleaders Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Count Basie, Artie Shaw and others. She was closely associated with tenor saxophonist Lester “Prez” Young, who dubbed her “Lady Day.”
There are varying accounts of her birth: in her memoirs, Holiday claimed she was born in Baltimore; but biographer Donald Clarke notes the time of birth, name of the doctor, and original spelling of her name on her birth certificate dated April 7, 1915 from Philadelphia General Hospital, in Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon. As a teenager, she began singing along with records by such artists as Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong in after-hours clubs in Baltimore. Her mother, Sadie Fagan, decided to move to New York, and Billie followed her. She began performing in nightclubs in Harlem, and she took the stage name Billie Holiday after film star Billie Dove. In 1933, when she was 18, she was discovered performing in a Harlem club called Monette’s by Columbia A&R man John Hammond. Her first commercial recording session occurred that November.
Two years later, in 1935, Holiday recorded four songs, including “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Miss Brown to You,” that would become hits. That same year, she appeared with Duke Ellington in the film Symphony in Black. The following year, she began working with Lester Young, who gave her the nickname “Lady Day.” She went on to tour with Count Basie in 1937 and with then Artie Shaw in 1938. Her appearances with Shaw’s orchestra made her one of the first African-American women to sing with a white orchestra. That same year she also scored a hit with “I’m Gonna Lock My Heart,” which reached Number Two on the pop chart.
In 1939, Holiday struck out on her own, performing at the Café Society in New York City. “I open Café Society as an unknown,” Holiday later said. “And I left two years later as a star.” The year she started performing there she recorded “Strange Fruit,” a harrowing song based on a poem about black lynchings in the South. Because of the controversial nature of the lyrics, Columbia Records would not release the song, so Holiday put it out on Commodore Records. The song became a hit and one of Holiday’s signature songs. Two years later, she recorded “God Bless the Child,” a self-penned classic. The record sold more than a million copies, and in 1976, it was elected into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Her horn-like phrasing and the riveting intensity of her voice, springing from a well of pure feeling, allowed Holiday to transcend even the mediocre material she was sometimes given during the course of her prolific recording career. She recorded for Columbia Records through 1942, then moved on to Decca in 1944. The following year she scored a hit with the song “Lover Man.”
By this point, Holiday was becoming a major star on the music scene. In a September 1943 issue, Life magazine wrote of Holiday, “She has the most distinct style of any popular vocalist and is imitated by other vocalists.” In 1947, she appeared alongside Louis Armstrong and Woody Herman in the feature film New Orleans. That same year, she was arrested after police found narcotics in her New York apartment. She was found guilty and was sentenced to serve one year at the Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia. She was released in March 1948. Holiday had been having issues with drugs and alcohol for many years, and she was arrested again, in 1949, after police found drugs in her San Francisco hotel room.
Meanwhile, after her 1948 release from prison, Holiday played a sold-out show at Carnegie Hall in New York and appeared in a Broadway musical, Holiday on Broadway. In October 1949, she scored another hit with the song “Crazy He Calls Me.” That song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2010.
During the Fifties, Holiday’s alcohol and drug use was starting to take a toll on her health, and her appearances became less frequent. However, in 1954, she did her first major tour of Europe. And in 1956, she published her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues. An album of the same name was also released that year. It included four new songs: “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Too Marvelous for Words,” “Willow Weep for Me” and “I Thought About You.” In November of that year, she returned to Carnegie Hall, where she played two sold-out shows. Two years later, Holiday returned to Columbia Records to record a new album, Lady in Satin.
In 1959, Holiday was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver, a result of her heavy drinking and drug use. On May 31, 1959, she was admitted to Metropolitan Hospital in New York City. Police raided her hospital room and again arrested her for heroin possession. Then on July 17 of that year, Billie Holiday died from pulmonary edema and heart failure caused by cirrhosis of the liver. She was 44 years old.
Lady Sings the Blues, a biographical film, was released in 1972. It rekindled interest in Holiday’s career and music. Many of her recordings remain in print as her legend continues to grow.
Billie Holiday (vocals; born April 7, 1915, died July 17, 1959)