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Billie Holiday was one of the most famous jazz singers of the 20th century. Billie Holiday’s innovative phrasing about her life experiences in her music makes her one of the most influential jazz lyricists of the 20th century. The emotional intensity that she brought into the words she sang was always very memorable and sometimes almost scary; she often lived the words she sang.
Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Harris in Baltimore, Maryland on April 7, 1915. She did not have a stable life. Her father Clarence Holiday played the guitar with Fletcher Henderson and later abandoned his family. Sadie (Billie’s mother) was not a very good role model either. Nonetheless, Billie grew up alone, feeling unloved and gaining a lifelong inferiority complex that led to her taking risks with her personal life becoming self-destructive.
Before and while Billie was famous, she had two role models that would help her achieve her goal of becoming a great recording artist. These important people were Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. Billie would always tell people: “I always wanted Bessie’s big sound and Pops’ feeling.” (Gourse, 25) Bessie Smith was called the “Empress of Blues”. She had a magnificent voice, sense of drama, clarity of phrasing, and unique time, which set her apart from the competition. Louis Armstrong was said to be the greatest jazz performer ever. He had a raspy voice, and a rich sound in his trumpet. “He ultimately became a jazz pioneer by taking the spirit of blues and, improvising on his horn, turning it into something revolutionary.” (Kliment, 44) Billie did something quite similar except with singing. She was never a blues singer in her mind. In fact, she hated to be labeled as one. She always said, “If they have to give me a label, call me a jazz singer.” (Kliment, 57) Because of Billie’s unique blues-inspired jazz singing, she was in the spotlight before she knew it.
When John Hammond discovered Billie singing in one of the Harlem clubs, it was the start of Billie’s career. He arranged for her to record a couple of titles with Benny Goodman in1933. Benny Goodman was a clarinetist and bandleader. He was most famous for popularizing swing-style jazz music. During the years of 1934-1942 Billie would make some of the finest recordings of her career. These recordings included, “Billie’s Blues,” “I’m Gonna Lock My Heart and Throw Away the Key,” and “Gloomy Sunday.” Some of her best songs were played at the Apollo Theater, where she began recording with Teddy Wilson. She also appeared in the film Symphony in Black with Duke Ellington. This film made her better known throughout the country. Soon after she recorded her first album titled Billie’s Blues.
During this time Billie acquired the name “Lady Day”, a name almost universally known for her. A man named Lester Young gave her the name soon after they became good friends. Billie met Lester at a club as he was performing on his tenor saxophone. He came from Kansas City in 1936 with Count Basie’s big band. Lester and Billie hit it off right from the start. They became best friends and they thought and felt alike. As the two grew closer, they gave each other nicknames. “Lester started calling Sadie (Billie’s mother) by the nickname ‘Duchess,’ and Billie became ‘Lady’ and ‘Lady Day.’ To return the compliment, Billie dubbed him ‘Prez’-the President of the Tenor Saxophone.” (Gourse, 39)
“Lady Day” was famous for many of her terrific songs, but none stood out except for the picturesque song “Strange Fruit”. This song was a strong anti-racism statement that became a permanent part of her reputation. Because she was African American, wherever she would go there would always be someone who would act prejudice and make her feel like she was nothing. An example of this was when Billie was on tour. While on the tour, her and her band stopped at a restaurant to use the restroom. Billie asked the hostess if she could use the bathroom and the hostess simply replies, “No”. She asked once more and still the hostess refused. Billie was annoyed at this and walked back to try and find it. The hostess chased her to the back of the restaurant and told her she could not use the restroom because of her race. So she went to the bathroom right on the floor and walked out. This story is just one of the many racist problems Billie ran into when she performed. Many of the songs she wrote were about her life, and race was a huge topic.
“Lady Day” was applauded for her many talents and her success in almost everything she did. But when she sang the famous song “Strange Fruit”, the song signaled a change in direction for Billie’s music. Because of the slow, intense way she performed the song, she was soon thought of as a dramatic singer. This new style Billie acquired was highly liked by her fans and she began to sing this way more often.
As Billie became more and more popular, she began to move around the country a great deal in the early 1940s. She was booked to go back into the Café society but failed to show up for any of the shows. Instead she opted to sing in New York on West Fifty-Second Street, for her it just felt like home. On this street, there was many jazz clubs that had opened in the 1930s, but all of them where designated as whites only. Then Teddy Wilson and Billie found a job at the club Famous Door. During this time, Billie was becoming increasingly disappointed by her inability to become as commercially successful as she thought she would be. Soon she would get fired from her job in New York, and go down the road of narcotics.
Billie was first introduced to opium and heroin in the early forties by her first husband James Monroe. She began her lifelong struggle with narcotics and an alcohol addiction. Her husband was the first in a succession of men who would feed her addiction, squander her earnings, and physically abuse her.
During this time, Billie was jailed for a year on drug charges after an amazing trial in 1947. Billie had her cabaret license taken away and was prohibited from performing in the clubs and nightspots. Billie was unable to stay drug-free as long as she remained involved with the music scene, and James Monroe. But because she could not give anything up, many more jail sentences followed.
After some time, Billie was issued a new cabaret license and was able to perform again. It was one night she performed when she met a fast-talking, sharp looking hustler named Louis McKay. She met him in a Harlem club called Hot Cha. He heard her singing and instantly became hooked. Louis came to all of her performances, and if he were late, she would cry. After that happened several times, she knew she was in love with him. So she decided to get a divorce from James Monroe and one day she would marry Louis McKay.
So just as things began to get better for “Lady Day”, she was taken to court on drug charges. Billie was released on bail and entered a drug clinic. Unlike her many other attempts to overcome her addiction, this time she did not go off heroin suddenly and completely, rather she was taken to get tests done, and medicine was made to make her have lesser cravings. The medicine Billie was given seemed to be successful at first, but then she turned to a new drug, alcohol. Like heroin, it helped her escape reality. Although alcohol did replace heroin, for Billie, she was now drinking almost two full bottles of liqueur each day. Because Billie was now drinking so much, this put a huge block in her marriage with Louis McKay. The marriage finally ended in divorce after things started to get physical.
Although Billie had an alcohol addiction, she still wanted to perform, and that she did. When Billie Holiday performed in 1948 at Carnegie Hall, she sounded better than ever. Although the concert was not publicly announced to many cities, the theater was still quite crowded. The Carnegie Hall staff had to place three hundred extra seats on the stage to accommodate the large audience. When Billie came out on stage, she looked beautiful; she was dressed in a floor-length skirt with long black gloves. Billie was very surprised to see so many people at the performance and on the stage. At first she thought they belonged to a choir.
During her successful concert at Carnegie Hall, a fan sent her a bouquet of white gardenias for good luck. “When the intermission was called, she took the flowers out of the box and fastened some to her dress and one in her hair. By accident, a hairpin sticking out of the flower punctured her head. She was so excited by the cheering audience that she did not notice how much she was bleeding. Finally a band member Bobby Tucker yelled to her and she stopped singing.” (Kliment, 18) Besides Billie’s terrific performance at Carnegie Hall, the hall was also famous for the start of Billie’s gardenia tradition. Although she had one accident, she continued to wear the flowers in her hair till the end of her career.
After Billie had finished her performance at Carnegie Hall, she knew how much of an impact she had on people’s lives. There were so many people at the concert, and as soon as she walked out onto the stage, she received a standing ovation unexpectedly. Right then she knew she had a huge impact on thousands of people’s lives. Billie sang her heart out and many fans still say that Carnegie Hall was her best performance ever. Lady Day did so much to change jazz music’s style; she came from poverty to fame, overcame a drug addiction and still kept going. Jazz is still around today, but is not as nearly as popular as it used to be. Many say it just died with Billie.
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