Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Elinore Harris, 7 April 1915, Philadelphia PA; d 17 July 1959, NYC) Jazz singer. She heard records by Bessie Smith as a child, then Louis Armstrong was her biggest influence, but she owed little to earlier artists: she was one of the first and is still widely regarded as the greatest of jazz singers, if the essence of jazz singing is to make the familiar sound fresh, and to make a lyric come alive with personal meaning. She was usually called Eleanora. Her father, Clarence Holiday, played banjo and guitar for Fletcher Henderson; he was proud of her success but had little influence on her. Her mother Sadie was not married and Sadie's mother had not been married; the surname Harris came from two generations on the female side. Sadie adopted the surname of her father, Charlie Fagan c.1920; in 1923 she married a dockworker named Gough who was apparently a kind stepfather, but left them in 1925. Eleanora effectively grew up in the street from then until 1927, probably when she went to NYC; big for her age and attractive, she had been sexually abused, and had already been singing in the back rooms of good-time houses in Baltimore; she had been locked up twice in the Catholic 'House of Good Shepherd for Colored Girls' because nobody was looking after her. She and Sadie were arrested for prostitution in May 1929 in New York. As a teenager she worked in Harlem clubs, in some of which the girls were required to pick up a tip from the edge of a table between their legs; her disdain for this stuff earned her the nickname 'Lady': she had innate dignity, as well as physical beauty, which never left her in spite of everything.

The speakeasies did not have sound systems, so she sang the same song at each table, improvising each chorus; John Hammond heard her and produced her first records in 1933 with a Benny Goodman studio band. Guitarist Dick McDonough commissioned Johnny Mercer to write lyrics for 'Riffin' The Scotch', but that and 'Your Mother's Son-In-Law' were typical novelty arrangements for the time. She appeared in a short film Rhapsody In Black in early 1935 with Duke Ellington, meanwhile making a sensational debut at the Apollo: emcee Ralph Cooper advised Frank Schiffman to book her with a famous description: 'It ain't the blues ... I don't know what it is, but you got to hear her.' Billie's first Apollo appearance was with her then boyfriend, pianist Bobby Henderson (b 15 March 1910; d 9 December 1969). She was engaged for a return date (which impressed Clarence); Cooper bought her a gown and slippers, rehearsed the house band for 'Them There Eyes' and 'If The Moon Turns Green'; comic Pigmeat Markham shoved her out on stage and the Apollo's discerning audience bestowed its approval. Some of her friends (and her father) had called her Bill; she had been calling herself Halliday, not wanting to use her father's name; but she returned to the Apollo as Billie Holiday.

Meanwhile in July 1935 she made the first of over 100 records '35-42, nearly all with small groups led by Teddy Wilson, on which her fame mainly still rests: they were made quickly and cheaply for juke boxes, using head arrangements played by whatever jazzmen happened to be in town (a rollcall of the greatest of the era); they sold well enough that the record company (Brunswick, on the verge of bankruptcy) engaged her to record under her own name as well as with Wilson. It is not true that the songs were second-rate; she and Wilson chose the ones they liked best from a stack of 30 or 40 for each recording session, and many of them were hits at the time; they were all current pop songs and nobody knew which ones would become standards. In any case she transmuted them into gold, sometimes turning a melody line inside out; she sang behind the beat, endowing lyrics with languor, irony, resignation or sexuality, depending on the song. Her vocal texture was coarse yet girlish, and profoundly affecting; her timbre and her time were unique. She soon recorded with life-long soulmate Lester Young, who named her Lady Day; Billie named him Prez (for President) and the nicknames stuck as long as they lived. It was said that she sang like a horn, but Lester's brother Lee was more precise: she thought like a horn. 'On most of the record sessions, he would play the bridge...he played the way she sang, and she sang the way he played.'

She liked the songs of Irene Kitchings (then Teddy's wife), and named the first chapter of her autobiography after 'Some Other Spring'. Mildred Bailey heard her and said, 'That girl's got it', and thereafter resented her; Frank Sinatra, Carmen McRae, Lena Horne, Helen Oakley (later Mrs Stanley Dance) were early fans; jazz fans, critics and musicians recognized her greatness, but she never broke through to the public at large in her lifetime, and her self-confidence was never great.

She toured with Count Basie in 1937 (no studio recordings; a few air checks later issued) and Artie Shaw in 1938 (only 'Any Old Time' recorded by Victor). Her record company had objected to her record with Shaw, but the former American Record Company (by then owned by CBS) allowed sessions at Milt Gabler's Commodore label in 1939 because they didn't want to record 'Strange Fruit', a setting of a powerful anti-lynching poem by Lewis Allen; this first Commodore record was backed with her own song 'Fine And Mellow', the session using the band she was then appearing with at Café Society, led by trumpeter Frankie Newton (b 4 January 1906, Emory VA; d 11 March 1954, NYC; a 52nd Street regular, with John Kirby '37, Lucky Millinder, led own bands). Gabler saw to it that 'Fine And Mellow' was copyrighted in her name, so that she received royalties on it for the rest of her life. In 1941 she married good-looking Jimmy Monroe, who had previously been married to actress/ singer Nina Mae McKinney, but he was no match for Billie.

She made a record in 1942 (as 'Lady Day') with Paul Whiteman for Capitol on the West Coast; after the musicians' union recording ban she made twelve more sides at Commodore for Gabler, who then took her to Decca (where he had become a producer) because he wanted her to record 'Lover Man': he knew it would be a hit and Decca would have been angry with him if he made a pop hit on Commodore. She asked for and got backing with strings, and 'Lover Man' became her only Billboard chart entry, in 1945. Although her lyrical interpretations were always fine, a few of the Decca records with strings have an overall slushy effect, but some of the later ones are better; in 1949 she recorded duets with her beloved Louis Armstrong including 'My Sweet Hunk O' Trash'. Her first solo concert was a success at NYC's Town Hall in early 1946. She made the film New Orleans that year, a dire Hollywood version of the history of jazz saved only by its musical content, Holiday and Armstrong playing a maid and a butler. An addictive personality, she had discovered heroin by the early 1940s and was an alcoholic by the end of the decade; she was sentenced to a year in 1947 for possession of dope. At her Carnegie Hall concert in 1948 her excellent accompanist was pianist Bobby Tucker (b 8 January 1923, Morristown NJ; d there 12 April 2008); she broke the house record and then broke her own record at a return engagement a week later.

She was unlucky with the men in her life and had a masochistic streak. Monroe was a weak man but a good friend for many years; he was unfairly blamed for getting her on heroin: in fact there is no evidence that he ever used heroin, and she would have found it sooner or later by herself. One of her live-in boyfriends was the excellent bassist John Simmons (b 14 June 1918, Haskell OK; d 19 September 1979, L.A.), who refused to work with her in clubs because she was so much trouble: the drugs made her more and more unreliable, which also meant that she did not get top money from club-owners (interviews with Simmons and many others are found in Donald Clarke's book, see below). Trumpeter Joe Guy started out taking advantage of her but got so messed up on drugs that he ended as her errand boy; with him occurred the arrest that led to prison, after which small-time gangster John Levy regarded her as a business investment, kept her short of money and savagely beat her up. On the West Coast with Levy in 1949 they were arrested for possession of opium; she beat the rap and the next track she recorded for Decca was ' 'Tain't Nobody's Business If I Do'.

(During this period her accompanists included another John Levy on bass [b 11 April 1912, New Orleans; d 20 January 2012, Altadena CA], who later went into artist management and suffered from having the same name as the wannabe gangster; and pianist Bobby Tucker [b 8 January 1923, Morristown NJ; d there 12 April 2007]. They disliked the other John Levy intensely. Levy went on to manage George Shearing and others; Tucker became Billy Eckstine's music director. They were two of the nicest gentlemen in music.)

Decca dropped Lady in 1950; that year she made a short film with the Basie sextet; she made four sides for Aladdin in 1952 and signed with Norman Granz the next year, produced by him until 1957. She toured Europe in 1954, played the first Newport Jazz Festival that year (Lester Young made a surprise appearance: they had been estranged, probably because of her drug addiction). By the mid-1950s her range had narrowed, her voice deteriorated; her unique timbre was still there and she was still a great interpreter, but years of alcohol, drugs and beatings were taking their toll. With her companion Louis McKay she was arrested again early '56 for possession (they got probation); he became her second husband but the stormy relationship soon ended. Accompanists in this period included Carl Drinkard and finally Mal Waldron, with whom she appeared at the '57 Newport Festival. She played concerts in Central Park that year; made a poignant appearance on the CBS TV programme Sound of Jazz with Young and many others (the best treatment jazz had received on TV until then). She recorded for Columbia: she wanted a string orchestra conducted by Ray Ellis; Lady In Satin '58 was the mixed result (though she was still interpreting: 'You've Changed' is a strong track; but see Ellis's entry for the story). She appeared at the Monterey Jazz Festival '58 and was clearly not at her best; another album with Ellis on MGM, Billie Holiday, was finished just weeks before her final illness, and is even stranger: some tracks sound as if her voice had been speeded up, but this may be Lady making a last heroic effort; she sounds like a sprightly 70-year-old instead of a 43-year-old wreck. She was suffering from cirrhosis; it wasn't drugs that killed her, but alcohol. She collapsed in May '59 and never left the hospital, where she was arrested for possession just as the city was struggling with the police department for more humane treatment for drug addicts. Difficult, childlike, a pathological liar (she told everyone she was married to Joe Guy and John Levy, but she didn't divorce Monroe for nearly 15 years), she was nevertheless loyal to friends and was loved by almost everyone who knew her.

The fullest biography is Wishing On The Moon: The Life And Times Of Billie Holiday '94, by Donald Clarke, which had access to over 100 interviews with people who knew Holiday, taken by Linda Kuehl in the early 1970s. (The later edition available from Da Capo is called Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon.) Her autobiography Lady Sings The Blues '56 was written by her friend, journalist William Dufty, to sell to the movies; it cannot be trusted but is a sort of classic of its kind. The film version made in 1972 is a travesty: McKay had carried her dope, helped himself to her money and beat her up; as 'technical adviser' on the film, he had himself written into the script as the hero, and there's nothing else in the script any better than that.

Two three-LP sets in the '60s (Billie Holiday: The Golden Years) were classic compilations on CBS/Columbia of the BRunswick/ Vocalion tracks, later recycled into two-LP sets; there was a ten-LP complete Verve compilation of the Granz studio tracks, but the CD era is at last doing Lady justice. The Teddy Wilson CDs on Hep have superb transfers by J.R.T. Davies, a lot of good jazz and many of Billie's best vocals: albums Fine And Dandy, Of Thee I Swing, Warmin' Up, Too Hot For Words, Blue Moon and Moments Like This cover the period July 1935 to January 1939 including many tracks with Lester. There have been a great many other compilations of these tracks and those recorded under Billie's name, some with Wilson; Sony/ Columbia's series of Quintessential Holiday CDs was not complete, the CDs didn't have enough tracks on them and the transfers were nothing special; the three-CD Legacy compilation was good value, but all these were superseded by the 10-CD Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia in 2001, with nearly four CDs of alternative takes and airchecks. These transfers were very good but some still preferred Davies' work on Hep. The complete Columbia set was soon out of print but the new Columbia transfers were being reissued in other sets, such as the two-CD Lady Day: The Best Of Billie Holiday, with 36 tracks, and Billie Holiday + Lester Young: a musical romance, with 16 tracks and very little duplication.The complete set was also available from Sony in Europe in 2009 in a convenient box instead of the elaborate album packaging of 2001.

Now that MCA owns Commodore there was a two-CD set including all 16 tracks produced by Gabler in 1939 and 1944 as originally issued on 78s, including 'Strange Fruit', plus alternative takes; but The Commodore Master Takes 2001 contained the much-reissued original 16 tracks in the best transfers they had ever received, by Steven Lasker. Billie's Blues '88 on Blue Note was a sort of complete EMI, with the '42 Whiteman track, the four Aladdins from '52 and the '54 European concert, but the annotation was out of date: there were two pianists at the Aladdin date, one of them is unknown and the other is Carl Drinkard (Bobby Tucker wasn't there); the concert is now known to have been 4 February at Basel, Switzerland. The Complete Original American Decca Recordings '44-50 came out '91, in marvellous sound; Lasker was involved again, Doug Schwartz credited as reissue engineeer; the two-CD set includes a good booklet and alternative takes. The Complete Billie Holiday On Verve 1945-1959 on ten CDs was a fan's bonanza, with live tracks including Newport and Jazz At The Philharmonic concerts, very informal rehearsal sessions, all the Norman Granz studio tracks, the European concert and the last album with Ray Ellis. Most of the Verve stuff was also recycled on a series of single CDs and sets; e.g. All Or Nothing At All on two CDs is Vol. 7, compiling the West Coast sessions '56-7 with Harry Edison, Ben Webster and Jimmy Rowles, perhaps her best later work.