Today, “legends” are ten a penny. When Billie Holiday was accorded the accolade it meant something. Lady Day was a brilliant singer, a great lyrical interpreter, she took chances, lived life hard, she could swing, she could swoon, she moaned low, was elegant and she was a soul singer before anyone had coined the phrase. She was one of the greatest jazz vocalists of all time.
We know when Billie was born (7 April 1915), yet that the facts about her childhood are murky, made no clearer by, ‘Lady Sings the Blues’, Billie’s autobiography, which confused things further. Billie’s birth certificate named her father as DeViese whereas she insisted he was Clarence Holiday – Sadie’s childhood sweetheart who later played guitar in Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra.
Abused as a child she had a spell in a Catholic children’s home before cleaning and running errands for a brothel madam. By 1928 Billie’s mother moved to Harlem with her daughter and before long they were both working in a whorehouse; fourteen year old Billie was charged with vagrancy and sent to a workhouse.
On her release, Billie took up with a saxophonist and the pair of them began playing Harlem dives; Billie trying to emulate Bessie Smith whose records she loved. In October 1933 John Hammond, a music critic and record producer heard her singing in a Harlem club and had her to record a couple of sides with Benny Goodman. The first, Your Mother’s son-in-Law gives no hint of her promise.
It would be a year or so before Billie recorded again. Hammond coerced Brunswick into a session and the recordings came out as, Teddy Wilson and his Orchestra – the first of close to 100 recordings Billie made with pianist, Wilson. These four sides, Miss Brown To You, What a Little Moonlight Can Do, I Wished upon the Moon and A Sunbonnet Blue should be in every jazz enthusiast’s library. Over the next twelve months Billie recorded a dozen more sides with Teddy before working under her own name, with her own orchestra. The first session was on July 1936. Other sessions followed both under her own name and with Wilson, some featuring Lester Young on sax.
In 1937 Billie sang with Count Basie’s orchestra and the following year she appeared with Artie Shaw, becoming one of the first black singers to appear with a white orchestra. It was not an easy engagement with Billie being abused by a member of the audience in Kentucky. By the end of 1937 a disenchanted Billie had quit Shaw’s band after the Hotel Lincoln in New York demanded she use the kitchen entrance rather than the front door.
Billie then began appearing at Café Society in Greenwich Village. Her performances amazed everyone, especially with the torch songs, including I Cover The Waterfront. However, there was one song that became synonymous with Billie during her spell at the club. One night, Lewis Allen, a New York public school teacher spoke with Barney Josephson, Café Society’s owner, asking if Billie would sing a song he’d written – so began the fascinating tale of Strange Fruit.
Allen’s song was about the lynching of a black man in the Deep South that pulled no punches. The anti-lynching protest poem set to music is incredibly powerful and Columbia, Billie’s label, refused to release it. It came out on the smaller Commodore label, sharply dividing opinion. Audiences were stunned into silence when she sang it live – men as well as women wept.
While Billie’s career was moving in all the right directions her personnel life was not. She had several relationships, including one with guitarist Freddie Green and then in the summer of 1941 she married Jimmy Monroe, best described as a hustler. It was in November 1941 that Billie first met Norman Granz at Café Society in Los Angeles and over the coming year did so much to raise Granz’s awareness of racial issues. In 1942 Monroe was caught smuggling drugs into California and despite Billie getting him the best lawyers he got a one-year sentence. Monroe was smuggling Marijuana, which Billie had been smoking for years and he also brought opium into her life, come 1944 she was using heroin; it was a trumpet player she had an affair with while Monroe was in prison that got Billie hooked.
One of Billie’s biggest successes came in 1944 when she signed to Decca Records releasing, Lover Man. It was a song that resonated with many servicemen overseas and their wives and lovers back home. In February 1945 Billie appeared at The Philharmonic Auditorium on a JATP concert, the first of many, and the following year she featured in the movie, ‘New Orleans’ that also featured Louis Armstrong.
Billie’s drug problems finally caught up with her in May 1947 when she was arrested in Philadelphia and charged with possession of heroin for which she received a one-year sentence. When Billie was released she had kicked her habit and looked better than she had done for years. Almost immediately after she left prison a concert was arranged at Carnegie Hall in March 1948; it was a sell out. She sang over thirty songs, despite not having sung for nearly a year, including All of Me, Fine and Mellow and, naturally, Strange Fruit. As one newspaper put it “Billie took her homage like a queen. Her voice, a petulant, sex-edged moan, was stronger than ever.”Jimmy Monroe, the man who the federal prosecutor described as the, “worst type of parasite you can imagine,” lost no time in getting Billie back into her bad habits. She got arrested again on a similar charge to her conviction, but this time she was acquitted. Before long a new man entered her life; John Levy was a club owner and about as bad as Monroe. He controlled Billie, as she was very definitely dependent on having a strong man in her life. Despite everything Metronome magazine named Billie the best female singer in its annual poll in 1949.
In 1952 Billie recorded for the Clef label for the first time, away from JATP concerts, backed by Oscar Peterson, Barney Kessell, Flip Phillips and Charlie Shavers. The album, ‘Songs By Billie Holiday’, was re-released by Verve in 1957. Other Clef albums followed that were repackaged, including ‘Lady Sings The Blues’, before in 1957 she started recording new material for Verve. Among the albums from this period that give an idea of where Billie was at by this stage in her career is ‘All Or Nothing At All’.
In 1954 Billie toured Europe and seemed happier than she had been in years, perhaps because she also had a new lover named Louis McKay, who at least kept drugs out of her life. By 1956 Billie published ‘Lady Sings The Blues’, which received some good reviews but the book was a fictionalized account written with a journalist.
In 1957, Billie Holiday married Louis McKay and while things initially went well fights between the two became more common, especially when Billie found out he had lost much of her money in risky property speculation; Billie was also back on drugs. They split up and Billie moved into an apartment in New York with just her dog for company. Her drug habit, fortified by excessive drink turned her into a pale shadow of her self.
When Lester Young, probably her one true friend throughout her life and the one who named her Lady Day, died in March 1959 it was a terrible blow. Two months later Billie was in hospital from her drug use. She was refused entry to one hospital because she took drugs and even at a second one that allowed her in, their toleration did not extend to taking of drugs while being treated. A nurse found drugs at her beside, called the police, who arrested her. Just over a month later Billie Holiday died, on 17 July 1959, still in hospital, still under arrest.
Billie Holiday was a complex woman. She exasperated her friends, but at other times she was the sweetest natured woman alive. Before the drugs, the booze and the lifestyle of an addict ravaged her voice, and her body there was no singer that came close to matching her intensity or her allure. Although it seems like every generation throws up one, maybe, two Holidayesque singers, none really has the gift to do what really matters most – to sing like you really mean it.