With an exceptional career and yet a tragic destiny, Billie Holiday remains one of the greatest voices of jazz history.
Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan and grew up surrounded by drugs, prostitution and violence. After her father, a jazz guitarist, left the home in 1928 she moved to New York with her mother, Sadie Fagan. While her mother worked in brothels at night, Eleanora explored the New York nightlife and its many jazz clubs. She was entirely self-taught; she spent her time in New York developing her ear and her voice and took the stage name Billie Holiday, after her father. She performed in Harlem clubs until she met John Hammond in 1933. He was a producer for the Columbia record label and hired her to sing with clarinetist Benny Goodman. They recorded Your Mother's Son-in-Law and Riffin 'the Scotch together. Billie Holiday then gave several concerts at the Apollo in Harlem, accompanied first by Bobby Henderson and then by the Ralph Cooper orchestra.
In 1935, Billie Holiday recorded the soundtrack for the film Symphony in Black, with Duke Ellington and his orchestra. She then went on to make her first great records with Teddy Wilson’s band. Louis Armstrong’s manager also contracted her. After almost a year working with Count Basie, she went on to tour with Artie Shaw and his orchestra. On this tour however she experienced racism as the audience singled her out as a black singer among white musicians; in the Southern States she was repeatedly banned from performing. This experience motivated her to devote herself exclusively to a solo career.
Billie Holiday began to record under her name and performed in some of the biggest clubs in New York. Some of her most popular songs were: Strange Fruit, Lover Man, God Bless The Child and Gloomy Sunday. Despite her growing fame, she fell into a deep depression and sought solace in alcohol and drugs. In 1945, she began taking heroin, under the influence of Joe Guy, her then partner. This troubled period, during which she also learnt of her mother's death, came at the height of her career. In 1946, she recorded the most iconic songs of her repertoire as Lover Man and Billie's Blues. Holiday was then sentenced a year in jail for drug possession, but returned to the stage in 1948 and triumphed at Carnegie Hall.
In the early 1950s, she met Louis McKay, who tried to help her to stop taking drugs and to restart her career. For a period of time this was a success and she signed with the Verve label. But her addiction to drugs continued to gnaw at her and had weakened her voice. Billie Holiday recorded her final masterpiece, Lady in Satin, in 1958. She worked hard, despite debilitating health problems, and went on a European tour, performing in front of Juliette Gréco and Serge Gainsbourg in Paris. Back in America, she was confronted with the death of her friend Lester Young and became permanently subsumed by drugs and alcohol. She was eventually taken to Harlem Hospital, and died a few days later.
Six Landmark Dates in the Life of Billie Holiday
1939 : A young professor, under the pseudonym Lewis Allan, proposed to put his poem Strange Fruit to music for Holiday. The song denounces the lynchings suffered by African Americans in the United States.
1944 : Left the Columbia label for Decca Records.
1947 : Sang alongside Louis Armstrong in the film New Orleans. Gained world recognition.
1954 : Took part in the first Newport Festival.
1957 : Published her autobiography, Lady Sings The Blues.
1959 : Gave her last public performance at the Phoenix Theatre in New York.
Five Key Recordings by Billie Holiday
1952 : Billie Holiday Sings
1955 : Stay with Me
1956 : Lady Sings the Blues
1957 : Body and Soul
1958 : Lady in Satin