How she changed the way singers perform and communicate.
Billie Holiday is widely regarded as the greatest jazz singer of all time, and had a huge impact on singers in popular music in general, and jazz in particular. Holiday’s career was at its height from the mid-1930s to the late 1950s. Despite her peak lasting just over two decades, she changed the face of American music.
Holiday’s achievements were not only based on her vocal style, but also her extraordinary life story, which was heavily touched by racism, drug addiction, and many other personal struggles. One of the things that made her great was how she channeled her suffering into deeply moving and memorable vocal performances. Yet Holiday was not a victim. She was tough, and has been described as the “wild woman of jazz.”
Holiday was a pioneer who changed music in a time before her and a time after her, and her impact continues. In the decades since her death in 1959, at the age of 44, Holiday won a total of five Grammy Awards, including Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, in 1987. In 2000, Holiday was inducted in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame by Diana Ross in the Early Influences category. And in 2011, Holiday was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame
Billie Holiday was born as Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915, in Philadelphia, to an unmarried teenage couple, Sarah ‘Sadie’ Fagan and Clarence Halliday. The latter was a jazz rhythm guitarist and banjo player, and largely absent in her life. Her mother worked on passenger railroads, and often left the young Eleanore in the care of her sister’s mother-in-law.
Growing up in Baltimore, Eleanore suffered from the absence of both her parents. At the end of 1925, Eleanore reunited with her mother, who had opened a restaurant. A year later, a neighbor raped Eleanore, still only 11. The girl was placed in protective custody, which would have felt as punishment to her. After her release a few months later, she started working as a cleaner, amongst other places in a brothel.
From recollections from people who knew here at the time, the young Eleanore loved to sing. During her early teens she heard records by Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, both of which had a great impact on her. She later remarked that especially Armstrong’s scatting on the song “West End Blues,” made a big impression. It may well have sown the seeds for her later vocal improvisations, while Armstrong’s trumpet playing ended up influencing her phrasing and desire to sound like a horn.
By 1929, when she was 14, Holiday and her mother moved to Harlem, New York, where they for some time worked as prostitutes. Eleanore also started singing in nightclubs, using the name Billie Halliday. The first name was inspired by silent movie star Billie Dove, who she adored, and her last name was taken from her father. She later changed it to Holiday, which also was the artist name her father used.
At the end of 1932, Holiday started to perform at a club on West 132nd Street. When producer John Hammond heard her sing, he was blown away. He later remarked, “She had an uncanny ear, and she sang with an exquisite sense of phrasing. It is not too much to say that she sang the way Louis Armstrong played horn. I decided that night that she was the best jazz singer I had ever heard.”
Hammond decided to introduce Holiday to popular clarinetist and bandleader Bennie Goodman, and at the end of 1933, Hammond was producer at a recording session featuring Holiday and a band fronted by Goodman. They were released under the name Benny Goodman & His Orchestra, and “Riffin’ the Scotch” became a hit.
Until that time, popular singers had to sing loudly and exaggerate their phrasing and diction to make themselves heard. According to John Hammond, Holiday had already taken a very different vocal route when he discovered her in 1933, with a far more understated and intimate vocal style.
It has often been noted that Holiday’s voice had a fairly limited range and also fairly limited power. Her greatness lay in the way she used her voice, phrasing behind the beat and using many subtle nuances that can only be heard on record or live with amplification.
Whether live amplification influenced Holiday or whether the emergence of live amplification in the late twenties and early thirties was a happy coincidence that she greatly used to her advantage is unclear.
Either way, images of Holiday singing confessionally into a microphone have become iconic, and the Shure 730B has become known as the ‘Billie Holiday microphone’ She would later also often use the Shure Model 55, with its famous art deco design, also known as the “Elvis” microphone.
Holiday spent most of 1934 cutting her teeth singing in nightclubs in Harlem, and was given a break in 1935 when she made an appearance in the Duke Ellington short film Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life, with her singing one song, “Saddest Tale.” In that same year Hammond signed her to the Brunswick Record Corporation, and teamed her up with one of the top pianists of the swing era, Teddy Wilson.
In 1936, Brunswick began releasing Holiday’s recordings under the name Billie Holiday and her Orchestra, and her rendition of “Summertime” became a hit. For the rest of the year, and also 1937, she enjoyed a constant stream of hits.
By the end of 1937, Holiday went on tour with Count Basie and his big band, and in February 1938 she went on tour with an all-white ensemble, Artie Shaw and his Orchestra. When they visited the segregated south this led to poignant situations, with Holiday having to sleep in the car while the rest of the band slept in hotels, only being allowed to enter the performance place via the kitchen instead of the front door and so on. It eventually led her to leave the band.
By the end of the 1930s, Holiday was well-established as an artist in the US. Her recording of “I’m Gonna Lock My Heart,” for Vocalion Records was one of the biggest hits of 1938. Yet, as always, the dark cloud of racism hovered around. This was particularly affecting for her in the case of the death of her father in March 1937. He had been refused treatment at a hospital because of his skin colour, and by the time he was accepted into the Jim Crow ward of another hospital, pneumonia had set in and he died.
Around this time, a white, Jewish school teacher, activist and poet called Abel Meeropol, was deeply disturbed by continuing news about racism. In 1937, Meeropol wrote a harrowing song about lynching titled “Strange Fruit.” By late 1938, it was introduced to Billie Holiday. Motivated by the harrowing death of her father, Holiday decided to perform the song.
Holiday continued to perform the song for the rest of her life, always to strong reactions. These reactions are not surprising, as “Strange Fruit” has been called “the most shocking song of all time.” However, it was Holiday’s performance as much as the lyrics that made it impossible to escape the confrontational content.
Holiday’s record company judged the song too controversial to release, so she recorded it for the independent Commodore Records label on April 20th. Holiday’s 1939 recording of “Strange Fruit” over time sold more than a million copies, and was in 1978 inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the controversy, “Strange Fruit” further enhanced Holiday’s popularity. In 1939, after an argument with her mother over money, she co-wrote the song “God Bless the Child,” with Arthur Herzog Jr.. It was recorded in 1941, and became another big hit, also selling over a million copies, and was one of several songs she was associated with that became part of the jazz standards repertoire. The song received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1976.
Holiday seemed to have reached a career peak. But at the same time, some of her less healthy habits started catching up with her. Holiday had disastrous taste in men, and her first husband, Jimmy Monroe, was a hustler, excessive drinker and opium smoker. She married him on August 25, 1941, and together with him developed a drug habit that included heroin.
Despite this, Holiday’s career continued to move upwards during the 1940s. In 1946, Holiday starred in a feature movie, New Orleans, together with Louis Armstrong and Woody Herman, and she came in second on the Downbeat polls of 1946 and 1947. Yet in that same year, on May 16, 1947, she was arrested for possession of narcotics, and ended up being sentenced to a year in prison.
Because of her conviction, Holiday no longer held a license to play the New York nightclubs, so instead a concert was organized for her at Carnegie Hall on March 27th, 1948. Holiday was reluctant, not sure the audiences would still be interested in her after her time in prison, but the concert was a sell-out and became legendary.
Holiday separated from Monroe in 1947, having gotten involved with her drug dealer, trumpeter Joe Guy. Despite another dubious turn in her personal life, she recorded “Crazy He Calls Me” in October 1949, which became her biggest hit since “Lover Man.”
By the 1950s, Holiday’s excessive drug use and relationships with abusive men started to catch up with her, and as her health declined, her voice notably began to suffer, with her beginning to sound hoarse with reduced flexibility and rage. But as with her earlier vocal shortcomings, she managed to use these new limitations to imbue even more emotion into her performances.
Holiday toured Europe for the first time in 1954, to rapturous applause everywhere. making use of advances in recording technology, Holiday started recording entire albums, amongst them Velvet Mood (1956), Lady Sings The Blues (1956), Stay With Me (1958), and Lady in Satin (1958). Many of these late-career albums are today considered classics.
In the beginning of 1959, Holiday was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. Her health quicky deteriorated and on May 31st, 1959, she was admitted to the Metropolitan Hospital in New York. In a final indignity, police went into her room and claimed to have found narcotics, which most likely were planted. She was arrested, handcuffed in bed, and placed under police guard.
The guard was only withdrawn hours before her death, at 3:10am, on July 17th, 1959. Billie Holiday was only 44. Holiday turned out to be almost penniless, the result of her drug habit, and being swindled out of her earnings by Louis McKay, her last husband. However, according to associates who were around by the time she died, her spirit remained unbroken until the end.
As time passed, the significance of Billie Holiday was increasingly recognized. Her personal story was in many ways a reflection of the cruelty and hardship that the African-America segment of the US population had to endure, while her greatness lay in the way she transcended this.
Most of all there’s her voice. Like with her life, the most striking aspect is how she used her limitations in a magnificent way. As mentioned earlier, she was the first singer who made her voice sound like a musical instrument, using phrasing and timing to work with or against the beat. She used the possibilities that were opened up by amplification to her advantage and sang in an intensely intimate, confessional manner, full of nuance and detail.
Most of all, she was a powerful story teller. She told the story of every song in ways that were incredibly profound, and as if she had lived through each phrase herself. When Holiday sings, listeners hang on her lips, taking in every word, and every nuance of how she sings it. In many ways, she was the first fully modern singer. More than 62 years after her passing, Holiday’s performances still sound fresh and contemporary.
© 2021, Paul Tingen.
Watch the video below to learn more about Billie Holiday and her amazing life and career!