I have long been an aficionado of Jazz/R&B vocalists, particularly those of the female persuasion. From Dinah Washington to Bessie Smith to Nina Simone to Betty Carter to Amy Winehouse to Janelle Monae and Jill Scott. Aretha was a titanic presence in many fields of popular music. I had the good fortune to see some of the greats live in concert in arenas, or even better in jazz clubs or supperclubs, including Miss Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Etta James, Shirley Horn, and Cassandra Wilson. But the one who rises above all others, in my mind, is the legendary Billie Holiday--Lady Day.
I must have every one of her major recordings and many outtakes as well. It is hard to fathom that someone who had such a difficult life could have produced such sublime music. I think the gift of her voice came at a price--that it must be used as a conduit of pain, whether heartbreak in romance or horror at the atrocities of mankind. Even her love ballads have a sense of the ephemeral. Eleanora Fagan was born in Philadelphia in 1915 but grew up largely in Baltimore. Her father, an itinerant musician abandoned her and her mother shortly thereafter. Sadie Fagan, Billie's mother, left her with a half-sister-Eva Miller, who farmed Billie out to her mother-in-law. In effect, for much of her childhood, Billie had no father and no real mother. Because she couldn't abide school, she was picked up regularly by truant officers. At the age of nine, she was shipped to a Catholic reform school. Shortly after her release, she began to help her mother run a restaurant. By eleven, she was out of school forever. Things soon got worse for young Eleanora. When she was eleven, she was sexually assaulted by a neighbor, but she fought off rape. She was taken into protective custody for awhile; shortly after her release, Sadie Fagan left her with relatives again to head for Harlem. Soon, Eleanora joined her mother there. Sadie Fagan's landlady was a madam, and before too long Sadie turned to prostitution. As soon as Eleanora arrived in New York, she was encouraged to turn tricks as well. Eleanora Fagan charged men five dollars a tumble before she turned fourteen.
Eleanora always loved music, though, and started performing in the early 1930s. She took her father's last name, Holiday, and the first name of the popular actress Billie Dove, and soon she started creating a buzz in the jazz clubs in Harlem. During her gigs, she occasionally ran into her father, who was performing in various bands as a jazz guitarist. In 1933, legendary producer John Hammond heard Billie perform one night when the singer he intended to scout was a no-show. He was blown away by the authority and subtlety of Billie's song stylings, and soon she was touring with Teddy Wilson's orchestra and making her first recordings. Billie's fame rose throughout the decade, and she worked with such greats as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, and Artie Shaw, but the relationship that was the most productive for her was her collaboration with tenor saxophonist Lester Young. At the age of twenty, she had a small role in a 9-minute short film featuring Duke Ellington writing a composition about the life of the Negro in America. The piece is called Symphony in Black, and features Holiday as an abused lover who sings a mournful lament. You can check it out on YouTube.
It was Lester who gave Billie her nickname--Lady Day. And he seemed to have a sixth sense of the most effective way to complement Billie's vocals right from their earliest collaborations, such as on the song "Mean to Me".
One of Billie's iconic recordings would come during this period. She heard a song created from a poem about the lynchings of blacks in the South. The song was "Strange Fruit", and the fruit, of course, are the bodies of young African-Americans swaying from the tree branches by a noose. The song scared record producers, who felt there could be a backlash, but Billie recorded it anyway and performed it for the rest of her life.
The other song made famous by Billie was the classic "God Bless the Child." I feel like a nimrod admitting that the first time I heard this song, during tenth grade, it was recorded by the big band rock group Blood, Sweat & Tears, in its second incarnation, with David Clayton Thomas on vocals. I purchased a copy of the hip, counter-culture Eye Magazine. This issue included one of those flexible wax 45-record inserts. I put it on the phonograph and loved the bluesy pop song with profoundly knowing lyrics. It said it was written by a B. Holiday, but I didn't recognize the name. Here is that recording:
By the time I got to college, however, I had familiarized myself with the body of work produced by Billie. There was even a major biopic of her (Lady Sings the Blues)in the movies, with Diana Ross of the Supremes assaying the role of Billie Holiday, though she really seemed nothing like her. Currently Audra MacDonald is playing Billie on the Broadway stage. Cassandra Wilson is about to release a Holiday tribute as well. Anyway, below is Billie's searing rendition of "God Bless the Child", which she co-wrote with Arthur Herzog, Jr., and which has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Below is the original recording and then one on video by Billie in the Forties. This link is to the latter in case it's pulled: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wc4JvGfRLpA
Billie wasn't the easiest person to get along with. She was fired from bands more than once for diva-like behavior. She resented any blatant racism and was not afraid to get into it with insensitive members of her audience. She often sang "Strange Fruit" as a tribute to her father who, it was reported, died because he was denied emergency hospital care. By the late Forties, Billie had succumbed to the temptations of hard drugs, especially heroin. Her tempestuous moods were becoming more prevalent. She was kicked off movie sets, her club performances fluctuated in quality, and she was arrested regularly. She made a fortune for her gigs, but she was going through the modern equivalent of more than $10,000 a week on her habit. She even spent some time in a minimum-security prison, but she didn't shake the habit. By 1945 the hits stopped coming. Billie's personal and professional lives both spiraled out of control. She married and divorced. She had a short-lived fling with her drug dealer. She had numerous relationships with men who beat her or used her for the little money she earned. She lost her cabaret license, which was a requisite to perform in clubs serving alcohol, so it was hard for her to make a living. Her voice began to suffer as well. For many, including me, its fragility was most compelling. Many of my favorite Holiday tunes come from this period, including my all-time favorite "Fine and Mellow" in 1957. There's an interesting story from this period related by the late writer/singer/dancer/social activist Maya Angelou. Billie was brought to Angelou's home in 1958. She looked the worst for the wear caused by drugs and excessive alcohol. But after a home-cooked meal, Holiday relaxed a little and became friendlier to Angelou, whom she mocked as a "square." When Angelou's 12-year-old son Guy arrived home, Billie stopped the profanity and vulgarity and even sang "You're My Thrill" to the boy. She stayed for five days and was a wonderful guest, but her dark side took over on the final night, when she went to a club to hear Angelou sing. She loudly heckled Maya off the stage, and even belittled her son. She was a complicated woman. When she left Angelou she reportedly said to her, "You're going to be famous. But it won't be for singing." By 1957, Billie was near the end. She made a recording in CBS's studios with a collection of many of the greatest jazz musicians ever. The video recording was called The Sound of Jazz, and indeed it was. Most poignant was the byplay between Billie and her former partner Lester Young, who had to sit to play his sax at that point in his life. Respected jazz historian Nat Hentoff remembers that following the first solo by Coleman Hawkins, "Lester got up, and he played the purest blues I have ever heard, and [he and Holiday] were looking at each other, their eyes were sort of interlocked, and she was sort of nodding and half–smiling. It was as if they were both remembering what had been—whatever that was. And in the control room we were all crying. When the show was over, they went their separate ways." Billie appears to be high on something in that video. Whatever was going on, she produced one of the most poignant renditions of a song in the history of the art form. She had first recorded "Fine and Mellow" back in 1939 in a lovely recording, on which "Strange Fruit" was the B Side. But this world-weary version was so moving that both the musicians and the sound men were left speechless. Billie was dead by 1959. Cirrhosis of the liver. But the ignominies didn't end even when she lay on her death bed in New York's Metropolitan Hospital. The police burst into her room and charged her with possession of narcotics. They placed her under police watch. Soon her heart failed. She died broke and was laid to rest in the Bronx. I still remember when her 70th birthday anniversary came up in 1985 that I bought stacks of audio tapes to record 72 hours of Holiday songs and concerts played by WKCR, the radio station of Columbia University. Fortunately, the quality of the recordings I currently own is superior! Frank Sinatra always said that the most influential singer in his life was Billie Holiday. Next April will be the 100th anniversary of the birth of America's greatest jazz vocalist. Celebrate by listening. Below is the recording of "Fine and Mellow" from 1957. But start back at the beginning.