Billie Holiday, also known as ‘Lady Day,’ was born Eleanor Fagan in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania around 1915. Her parents were both teenagers when she was conceived. Her father was said to be Clarence Holiday, a World War I veteran that became a banjo guitarist with Fletcher Henderson during the 1920’s. The fact that her parents never had a solid relationship haunted her and led to much confusion in her life. A victim of molestation at age 10, Holiday’s perspectives of adult life became somewhat distorted.
After being dubbed ‘Billie’ by her mother around age 12 (nicknamed after silent movie star Billie Dove and her father’s last name), she was labeled a street-minded deviant and shipped off to a girl’s home. After Billie completed her schooling, she moved to the New York area and picked up odd jobs; some of which the average young woman wouldn’t do. Though she landed in jail on multiple occasions, Billie was later hired to sing in clubs, and her popularity spread. A&R legend John Hammond heard her, and mentioned her in a column he wrote in 1933. As more favorable reviews about her performances received positive print, music executives flocked to sign her to a record deal that very same year.
John Hammond had many gifts and talents. Besides being a music critic, Hammond managed to be a talent scout, record producer and musician from the 1930s into the 80s. He also happened to be the great-grandson of railroad magnate William Vanderbilt. Besides Billie Holiday, Hammond had plenty of influence with other high-caliber artists like Duke Ellington (Billie was an actress in his film “Symphony In Black”), and Count Basie, whom she spent some ‘quality time’ with in the recording studio. By the time it was all said and done, he’d been involved in some way with acts like:
Big Joe Turner
Stevie Ray Vaughan*
* Columbia or Epic Records artist that went through the pipeline I worked with.
More club gigs continued to open up for Billie at about the same time the U.S. government repealed prohibition and began taxing alcohol to generate income. As her recording dates increased, so did the racism around her. She was also competing for status in the music industry with legendary contemporaries such as Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, Lena Horne, and Ella Fitzgerald. As Billie’s fame increased from America to Europe, so did her record sales.
Billie became a serious contender in the music game, and was now getting top billing on tours; and recording frequently. Still, life’s ups and downs caused her to be tough on the outside, sensitive on the inside – and rebellious whenever she felt people were trying to take advantage of her. The loss of her father in 1937 caused a performance hiatus and launched feelings of guilt between her and her mother. Eventually, Billie was doing shows again – this time with none other than the legendary Count Basie and his big band.
Billie Holiday’s style was comparable to the style of early Negro singers that took popular Christian hymns and altered the words. Holiday became well known for modifying pop standards when she recorded. Much of it was to the dismay of the publishers that controlled the copyrights to those songs. As a result, publishers tended to ignore her, and held back on giving Holiday the best available tunes to record. Too often, the White bands that she played with did not stand up for her when it came down to pay and racial issues. After a seemingly unending series of band changes and recordings, Holiday’s career took an upward turn after recording a song called “Strange Fruit.” She was catapulted to an icon, complete with newfound fame and fortune.
Even music publishers approached her with fresh material to record. Although she made decent money, she lost much of it from an alleged heroin addiction, and bad relationships with men. Another side of the story is that she did much for struggling artists by providing them with housing, food and money during The Great Depression. By the late 1940’s, drugs caused her to get banned from future New York performances, but she managed to maintain an extensive work schedule by making appearances on television shows and at top concert halls in the U.S. and Europe.
Holiday never lost much popularity amongst her fans, but her health declined noticeably due to drug use and depression. There’s even a story about when she was recuperating in a hospital bed: certain privileges were denied by round-the-clock police standing guard outside her room. She purportedly had some ‘unfinished business’ with the law, and they didn’t let her forget it. Holiday passed away at the age of 44, with a $750 advance taped to her leg…and less than a dollar in the bank. Her posthumous record sales exceeded $100,000 that year. As documented in an award-winning portrayal by Diana Ross in “Lady Sings the Blues”, Billie Holiday will always be remembered as a gifted performer – one that was truly way ahead of her time. You are encouraged to further explore the music and life of a lady who not only sung the Blues, but lived them too.