Lady Day sang with the soul of Negroes from centuries of sorrow and oppression. What a shame that proud, fine, black woman never lived where the true greatness of the black race was appreciated. Malcolm X
Born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915, to thirteen-year-old Sadie Fagan and fifteen-year-old Clarence Holiday, Billie Holiday began her life in a Baltimore ghetto with little hope of ever escaping the poverty and oppression of her race, and of her sex.
Armed with only a fifth-grade education and an irrevocable desire never to have to clean up after white people, Holiday beat the odds. Instead of becoming a domestic like her mother and so many other black women did to survive, she became one of the world's most influential and unparalled jazz artists.
The press that surrounds Holiday's life and death has focused more on her painful childhood and adolescence, tempestuous relationships and marriages, and particularly her twenty-five year struggle against heroin addition--highlighted by her 1947 narcotics conviction--than it has on her singing and her contributions to the world of music and jazz.
Even Motown's Berry Gordy delved into sensationalism with "Lady Sings The Blues" (1972), a film loosely based on Holiday's 1956 autobiography of the same title. In the movie, Diana Ross (who sings the songs in the film herself, blasphemy of the highest degree as it further robs the audience of the true essence of Lady Day) portrays Billie as a strung-out heroin addict who throws her talent away even though she has the support of a loving husband (Billy Dee Williams) and thousands of appreciative fans.
The inaccuracies are too intricate to explain properly in this article, but the main one is that Holiday's personal shortcomings were primarily responsible for her tragic decline and eventual death in 1959.
This was true for most black jazz musicians in the 1930's and 1940's, for Holiday would often get paid only $50 to $75 for a side (two recorded songs on a 78rpm) and did not receive royalites on her recordings until after 1944. Underpaid and at the mercy of white managers and promoters, Holiday constantly had to fight to get the money and respect she wanted so badly and rightfully deserved.
Towards the end of her career, Holiday even expressed interest in emigrating to England because there she was appreciated as an "artist", not merely as a Negro jazz singer.
Holiday even got her nickname, "Lady Day", because of her quest for dignity. Traditionally, female singers in nightclubs would go from table to table and collect tips by pulling up their dresses and grabbing outstretched monetary offerings with their labia. Holiday attempted this ritual a few times but found it too degrading, and thus the other singers sarcastically started calling her "Lady".
When tenor saxophonist Lester Young became one of Billie's close friends, he enlongated her moniker to "Lady Day", and she in turn stuck him with the nickname "Pres", after President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Musically, Young and Holiday were kindred spirits, for they both were small on tone but overwhelmed with their expression and musical interpretations. *confusing*
Some of their best work was done with one another, especially classic recordings such as "I Must Have That Man" and "A Fine Romance" from 1937, as well as "Fine and Mellow", the blues tune they played together during a reunion twenty years later on the 1957 CBS-TV special, "The Sound of Jazz".
Holiday's death was tragic, but in an African-American sense, not a Greek one. Whenever Holiday travelled with an orchestra, black or white, she faced extreme prejudice and racism. While with Count Basie's orchestra in the South, she was forced to darken her skin with grease paint so the audience would not think she was a white singer working for a black band. When she was with Artie Shaw's orchestra, she was forced leave the stage after her songs were over because it was not "proper" for her to sit down onstage with whites.
Often singing to all-white audiences in New York's segregated nightclubs, Holiday once sagely commented, "You can be up to your boobies in white satin, with gardenias in your hair and no sugar cane for miles, but you can still be working on a plantation."
Holiday's singing style was greatly influenced by Louis Armstrong and blues great Bessie Smith; she went for "Satchmo's" feeling and Smith's volume, and ended up with a unique combination of the two.
Even though the majority of songs that Holiday sang throughout her three-decade career were commercial, Tin Pan Alley tunes ("What A Little Moonlight Can Do", "Them There Eyes", "I Cover The Waterfront"). she sang them in such an uncompromising, heartfelt style that she never gained the national popularity of more "acceptable" singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.
A musician's musician, Holiday got unequalled respect from every jazz soloist and jazz band with whom she played. As she said, "I don't feel I'm singing. I feel like I'm playing a horn. I try to improvise...what comes out is what I feel."
Holiday co-wrote only three songs in her career, "Billie's Blues", "Fine and Mellow", and the now-perennial favorite "God Bless The Child", all inspired by personal experience. In her autobiography Lady Day knowingly said, "With me, it's got nothing to do with working or arranging or rehearsing. Give me a song I can feel, and it's never work."
In the past few years, Holiday has finally been getting the kind of national attention that she deserves. In 1981, Baltimore unveiled a statue of Lady Day four blocks west of the black ghetto where she grew up; in 1986 a "Billie Holiday" star was placed on Hollywood's Walk of Fame; and this January, Maryland has started its first annual Billie Holiday Jazz Singer's Competition.
On January 30, WHRB is presenting a thirteen-hour retrospective of Holiday's recording career in an attempt to keep alive the most important aspect of Lady's legacy--her music.