Billie Holiday’s voice was a little thin and somewhat limited. She had no technical training; she couldn’t even read sheet music.
Yet, Holiday is one of the greatest vocalists of all-time.
What she lacked in power and tone, she made up for it with the ability to tell a story and emote. Every song she sang she made her own.
Holiday was a true artist who had a profound impact on both jazz and pop music.
She made a huge impact on countless artists including Frank Sinatra.
“Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years,” explained Ol’ Blue Eyes to Ebony magazine in 1958.
Despite personal demons, abusive romantic relationships, and the specter of racism, Holiday achieved commercial and artistic success during her lifetime.
Since her death in the late 1950s, generations of musicians have turned to her recordings for inspiration and enlightenment.
Holiday began singing in Harlem clubs in 1929. Initially, she performed under the name “Billie Halliday.”
“Billie” she took from actress Billie Dove.
“Halliday” was her father’s last name. He too was a jazz musician, playing guitar and banjo, and eventually landed a gig with Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra.
Like her father, she changed the spelling of her last name to “Holiday.”
In 1932, when she was 17, Holiday was tapped to replace singer Monette Moore at a New York City nightclub.
Legendary music producer John Hammond was in the crowd.
He was there to hear Moore, but became so enamored by Holiday’s artistry that he invited her into the studio.
Holiday made her first recording at the age of 18.
She recorded two songs with Benny Goodman, “Your Mother’s Son-In-Law” and “Riffin’ the Scotch.” That last track sold 5,000 copies.
That’s not a lot by today’s standards, but in 1933, it constituted a hit record.
In the mid-1930s, Holiday recorded a series of songs that are widely regarded as some of the finest music of the era.
Her records were notable for her revolutionary use of improvisation; she often changed the melody to fit the song’s emotional theme.
Holiday also showed a penchant for taking mundane pop songs and turning them into legitimate jazz standards. A prime example is her rendition of "Yankee Doodle Went to Town."
Many of her early recordings were made with pianist Teddy Wilson and saxophonist Lester Young.
The latter gave Holiday the nickname of “Lady Day.”
To save money for their label, Holiday and her collaborators improvised their recording sessions. This prevented the label from buying arrangements.
Also, Holiday was paid a flat rate and received no royalties. Being underpaid was a constant theme throughout Holiday’s career.
Basie and Shaw
In 1937 and 1938, Holiday sang for Count Basie and Artie Shaw.
She was fired from Basie’s band for being unprofessional and difficult.
Her time with Shaw’s band saw Holiday become the first black singer to tour with a white band.
During her time with Shaw, she experienced segregation and racial slurs.
In 1939, Holiday introduced “Strange Fruit” into her repertoire. This powerful and emotional song is about a lynching.
Holiday’s father died because racial prejudice prevented him from receiving medical treatment.
This experience made Holiday relate deeply to “Strange Fruit.”
She first performed the song at the Café Society in New York City.
Due to the serious nature of the work, the crowd was silenced and movement was prohibited.
During her performance, Holiday was illuminated by one small spotlight. As the final note faded into silence, the light was extinguished.
When the lights came back on, Holiday had left the stage.
She recorded “Strange Fruit,” but it received no airplay.
Even so, and partly based on its flipside, the record sold very well.
The recording, and her performance of the song, are high points in the annuals of jazz and popular music.
“God Bless the Child”
The other song most associated with Holiday is “God Bless the Child.” She wrote the song in 1939 with Arthur Herzog, Jr., and recorded it in 1941.
The song’s title came from an argument Holiday had with her mother, who at the time owned and operated a restaurant.
To keep the restaurant solvent, Holiday’s mother borrowed considerable sums of money from her daughter.
At a time when Holiday was down on her luck, she went to her mother’s restaurant and asked for some cash. Holiday’s mother refused her request.
During their ensuing argument, Holiday shouted, “God bless the child that’s got his own.”
“God Bless the Child” sold more than a million copies and was one of the most popular songs of 1941.
Holiday signed a contract with Decca Records in August of 1944. Her first single for that company was “Lover Man.” The song was a big success and made Holiday a pop star.
The single also allowed Holiday to hold solo concerts. While such events are common for today’s popular singers, it was rare in the mid-1940s.
“Lover Man” featured strings which was a first for a Holiday recording.
Other big singers of the 1940s used strings, but not jazz singers.
Many believe Holiday wanted a string section to differentiate the new phase of her career from her previous recordings with Teddy Wilson.
Holiday starred in one major film during her lifetime, New Orleans.
It was released in 1946 and featured Louis Armstrong.
Unfortunately, racism made filmmakers diminish Holiday’s and Armstrong’s roles to avoid the impression that black people invented jazz.
While making the film, Holiday’s drug use intensified. She spent most of her earnings on heroin.
Her lover at the time, Joe Guy, was also her dealer.
When it was discovered that Guy was supplying Holiday with drugs, he was banned from the set.
Her incarceration ended in March of 1948. Eleven days later she performed a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall.
She followed that with a short-run, but successful, Broadway show (Holiday on Broadway).
At the beginning of the 1950s, Holiday’s health was suffering from drug and alcohol abuse. Adding to her ails were relationships with abusive men. These factors caused Holiday’s voice to deteriorate.
Despite this, Holiday kept her ability to emote and move an audience. Lady Day never lost her edge.
In the 1950s, Holiday toured Europe, made several television appearances, published her autobiography, and staged additional concerts at Carnegie Hall.
In 1959, Holiday was struck by the news that she had cirrhosis of the liver. The ailment caused her to lose 20 pounds.
She was hospitalized on the last day of May.
In addition to her failing liver, she was also being treated for heart disease.
Adding insult to injury, federal narcotic officers, who had been watching Holiday for at least two decades, arrested her for drug possession as she laid on her death bed.
Fearing she was about to be arraigned, Billie Holiday left the world on July 17, 1959. She was 44.
At the time of her death she had $.70 in her bank account.
Holiday’s finances were hindered by the fact that she seldom received money for her songwriting or past recordings (many were out of print in the 1950s).
For example, in 1958 she received just $11 in royalties.
In 1972, Holliday’s turbulent life and brilliant musical career was immortalized on film.
Lady Sings the Blues starred Diana Ross, Richard Pryor, and Billy Dee Williams.
The film was directed by Sidney J. Furie.
“Crazy He Calls Me”
“God Bless the Child”
“I Cried for You”
“I’ll Get By”
“Miss Brown To You”
“Riffin’ the Scotch”
“What a Little Moonlight Can Do”
The Ray Ellis Orchestra
Billie Holiday Trivia
Billie Holiday was a contralto (the lowest female vocal range).
During most of her career, Holiday’s main rival was Ella Fitzgerald.
Holiday referred to Lester Young as “Prez.”
Billie Holiday had a dog named “Mister.”
In 1935, Holiday appeared in Duke Ellington’s short film, Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life.
To avoid contractual obligations, Billie Holiday sometime recorded under the name “Lady Day.”
Holiday’s mother was nicknamed “The Duchess.”
In 1947, Holiday finished fifth in a prominent poll of female singers. Jo Stafford was first.
In 1949, Holiday was arrested in San Francisco.
U2’s “Angel of Harlem” is about Billie Holiday.
Holiday received her own stamp from the United States Postal Service in 1994.
Before her first concert at Carnegie Hall, Holiday received a box of gardenias—the flower was her trademark.
She fastened some of the flowers to the side of her head but failed to realize there was a hairpin mixed in with the stems.
The pin punctured her skin.
After her third curtain call, she passed out from the blood loss.
Her final studio session occurred in March of 1959 and was for MGM Records.
In 1985, the city of Baltimore honored Holiday with a statue.