Billie Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, opens with the line:
“Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married; he was 18, she was 16 and I was three.”
Billie was born in Philadelphia on April 7, 1915 as Eleanora Fagan, the daughter of Clarence Holiday, a musician, and Sadie Fagan. Her father left soon after her birth and Sadie and Eleanora moved to Baltimore. Sadie worked long hours, and wasn’t home much. Billie was raped by the time she was ten (for which she was sent to a house of truancy). At age 12, she was working alongside her mother in prostitution. By age 14, she determined she could have a better life, and began to sing. She changed her name to Billie after the movie star Billie Dove, and used her father’s last name.
In 1933 the young producer and aspiring impresario John Hammond heard her sing in Harlem and convinced Benny Goodman to make a record with her. She was eighteen years old.
In the mid-1930s Louis Armstrong’s manager took on Holiday as a client, and she started to get more work and greater exposure. Before long, she joined the Count Basie Orchestra. Life on the road was not easy for Holiday however, as she was unused to the racism of the Jim Crow South. At one point she was encouraged by club owners to wear dark makeup so that Southern white audiences would not think she was a white woman singing with black musicians. By 1938 Holiday was no longer singing with the Basie Orchestra; she said she left because she was not paid enough.
When the white bandleader Artie Shaw heard that Holiday had left Basie, he offered her a job. She became one of the first black artists to join an all-white band. She traveled with Shaw throughout the country, but again, the constant racial insults on the road were too hard for her to endure.
Although Holiday was a star by 1939, her personal life was not as successful. She had brief affairs with Goodman and Shaw, with Basie’s guitarist Freddie Green, and with the tenor saxophonist Ben Webster.
Perhaps the most important male relationship she enjoyed during these years, though, was her platonic friendship with the tenor saxophonist Lester Young. The two became close both during and after their days together in Basie’s band. Young was Holiday’s musical soul mate. He was renowned for his lyrical improvisations, and together the two achieved a rare musical intimacy. Young gave Billie Holiday her nickname, Lady Day, and she dubbed him Prez, the president of the tenor saxophone, a nickname that also stuck.
The second stage of Holiday’s career began in 1939 with her appearances at a Greenwich Village hangout frequented by an interracial audience of intellectuals, bohemians, and jazz fans. It was here that she first sang “Strange Fruit.” Written and set to music by Lewis Allen, the song was a stark, metaphorical portrayal of southern lynchings of blacks, sung by Holiday at a dramatic, funereal tempo. Many critics consider her rendition of “Strange Fruit” (1939) to be one of the most powerful, understated commentaries on prejudice committed to music.
Holiday had smoked marijuana regularly since her teenage years, and she now began to use harder drugs. In the spring of 1947 she entered a clinic to kick her heroin habit, but federal agents arrested her on narcotics charges soon thereafter. She spent almost a year in a federal reformatory, and she was back on heroin shortly after her release.
When not taking heroin, her drinking became heavier, and her voice steadily deteriorated. She gave her last performance on 25 May 1959 at the Phoenix Theater in New York City.
Holiday collapsed on Memorial Day 1959 and fell into a coma, ravaged by liver problems and cardiac failure. She died from cirrhosis of the liver on July 17, 1959. In the final years of her life, she had been progressively swindled out of her earnings, and she died with $0.70 in the bank and $750 (a tabloid fee) on her person.
Holiday had a small voice with a range of only about an octave, but she could transform a song, inflecting words and pitches to give them her own meaning and emotional content. She was a minimalist, singing only the notes that counted and infusing songs with new and deeper meanings. She had a relaxed sense of swing; she stretched rhythms and sang around, behind, and ahead of the beat. She considered herself a musician collaborating with other musicians, and she phrased and improvised like a horn player.
You can see her sing “Strange Fruit” in this video: