Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan; April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959) was an American jazz singer and songwriter. Nicknamed “Lady Day” by her friend and musical partner Lester Young, Holiday had a seminal influence on jazz and pop singing. Her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo.
Early Life and Education
She was born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Sarah Julia “Sadie” Fagan (Harris). Her father, Clarence Holiday, a musician, did not marry or live with her mother. Not long after Holiday’s birth, her father left her and her mother to pursue a career as a jazz guitarist. Sarah Fagan had moved to Philadelphia at the age of 19 after being evicted from her parents’ home in Sandtown-Winchester, Baltimore for becoming pregnant. With no support from her parents, Holiday’s mother arranged for the young Holiday to stay with her older married half sister, Eva Miller, who lived in Baltimore. Holiday, who was of African American ancestry, was also said to have had Irish ancestors through her mother’s mixed heritage.
Billie Holiday had a difficult childhood. Her mother often took what were then known as “transportation jobs”, serving on passenger railroads. Holiday was left to be raised largely by Eva Miller’s mother-in-law, Martha Miller, and suffered from her mother’s absences and leaving her in others’ care for much of the first ten years of her life. Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, first published in 1956, was sketchy about details of her early life, but much was confirmed by Stuart Nicholson in his 1995 biography of the singer.
Some historians have disputed Holiday’s paternity, as a copy of her birth certificate in the Baltimore archives lists the father as “Frank DeViese.” Other historians consider this an anomaly, probably inserted by a hospital or government worker. Frank DeViese lived in Philadelphia and Sadie Harris may have known him through her work.
Sadie Harris, then known as Sadie Fagan, married Philip Gough, but the marriage was over in two years. Holiday was left with Martha Miller again while her mother took more transportation jobs. Holiday frequently skipped school and her truancy resulted in her being brought before the juvenile court on January 5, 1925, when she was not yet 10. She was sent to The House of the Good Shepherd, a Catholic reform school. She was baptized there on March 19, 1925, and after nine months in care, was “paroled” on October 3, 1925, to her mother, who had opened a restaurant called the East Side Grill, where she and Holiday worked long hours. By the age of 11, the Holiday had dropped out of school.
Rape and Prostitution
Holiday’s mother returned to their home on December 24, 1926, to discover a neighbor, Wilbur Rich, raping her. Rich was arrested. Officials placed Billie in the House of the Good Shepherd under protective custody as a state witness in the rape case. Holiday was released in February 1927, nearly twelve. She found a job running errands in a brothel.During this time, Holiday first heard the records of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. By the end of 1928, Holiday’s mother decided to try her luck in Harlem, New York, and left Holiday again with Martha Miller.
By early 1929, Holiday joined her mother in Harlem. Their landlady was a sharply dressed woman named Florence Williams, who ran a brothel at 151 West 140th Street. Holiday’s mother became a prostitute and, within a matter of days of arriving in New York, Holiday, who had not yet turned fourteen, also became a prostitute at $5 a client. On May 2, 1929, the house was raided, and Holiday and her mother were sent to prison. After spending some time in a workhouse, her mother was released in July, followed by Holiday in October, at the age of 14.
Early singing career
In Harlem she started singing in various night clubs. Holiday took her professional pseudonym from Billie Dove, an actress she admired, and the musician Clarence Holiday, her probable father. At the outset of her career, she spelled her last name “Halliday,” the birth-surname of her father, but eventually changed it to “Holiday,” his performing name. The young singer teamed up with a neighbor, tenor sax player Kenneth Hollan. From 1929 to 1931, they were a team, performing at clubs such as the Grey Dawn, Pod’s and Jerry’s on 133rd Street, and the Brooklyn Elks’ Club. Benny Goodman recalled hearing Holiday in 1931 at The Bright Spot. As her reputation grew, Holiday played at many clubs, including Mexico’s and The Alhambra Bar and Grill where Charles Linton, a vocalist who later worked with Chick Webb, first met her. It was also during this period that she connected with her father, who was playing with Fletcher Henderson’s band.
By the end of 1932 at the age of 17, Billie Holiday replaced the singer Monette Moore at a club called Covan’s on West 132nd Street. The producer John Hammond, who loved Monette Moore’s singing and had come to hear her, first heard Holiday in early 1933. Hammond arranged for Holiday to make her recording debut, at age 18, in November 1933 with Benny Goodman, singing two songs: “Your Mother’s Son-In-Law” and “Riffin’ the Scotch,” the latter being her first hit. “Son-in-Law” sold 300 copies, but “Riffin’ the Scotch,” released on November 11, sold 5,000 copies. Hammond was quite impressed by Holiday’s singing style. He said of her, “Her singing almost changed my music tastes and my musical life, because she was the first girl singer I’d come across who actually sang like an improvising jazz genius.” Hammond compared Holiday favorably to Armstrong and said she had a good sense of lyric content at her young age.
In 1935, Billie Holiday had a small role as a woman being abused by her lover in Duke Ellington’s short Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life. In her scene, she sang the song “Saddest Tale.
Her delivery made Billie Holiday’s performances recognizable throughout her career. Her improvisation compensated for lack of musical education. Her voice lacked range and was thin. Years of drugs altered its texture and gave it a fragility. Her voice also included a raspy sound. Holiday said that she always wanted her voice to sound like an instrument and some of her influences were Louis Armstrong and singer Bessie Smith. 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:
I would say that the most emotional moment was her listening to the playback of “I’m a Fool to Want You.” There were tears in her eyes … After we finished the album I went into the control room and listened to all the takes. I must admit I was unhappy with her performance, but I was just listening musically instead of emotionally. It wasn’t until I heard the final mix a few weeks later that I realized how great her performance really was.
Frank Sinatra was influenced by her performances on 52nd Street as a young man. He told Ebony 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.
In 1986, Joel Whitburn’s Record Research, Inc. company compiled information on the popularity of record releases from the pre-rock and roll era and created pop charts dating all the way back to the beginning of the commercial recording industry. The company’s findings were published in the book Pop Memories 1890–1954. Several of Holiday’s records are listed on the pop charts Whitburn created.
Holiday had 16 best selling songs in 1937, making the year her most commercially successful. It was in this year that Holiday scored her sole number one hit as a featured vocalist on the available pop charts of the 1930s, “Carelessly”. The hit “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”, was also recorded by Ray Noble, Glen Gray and Fred Astaire whose rendering was a best seller for weeks. Holiday’s version ranked 6 on the year-end single chart available for 1937.
In 1939, Holiday recorded her biggest selling record, “Strange Fruit” for Commodore, charting at number 16 on the available pop charts for the 1930s.
“God Bless the Child”, which went on to sell over a million copies, ranked number 3 on Billboard’s year-end top songs of 1941.
On October 24, 1942, Billboard began issuing its R&B charts. Two of Holiday’s songs placed on the chart, “Trav’lin’ Light” with Paul Whiteman, which topped the chart, and “Lover Man”, which reached number 5.
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