The Story About Billie Holiday Life And Career

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Billie Holiday was an incredible influence on the development of jazz– though she lived a tragic and short life riddled with drugs, alcohol, financial struggles and a turbulent upbringing, her incredibly distinct vocal style and liberal use of improvisation influenced jazz singing and cemented her important legacy in the history of jazz (Greene, 2007). She worked with some of the greatest musicians of her time– Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Artie Shaw and Lester Young, the latter of whom was a great friend of hers and whose musical style is considered by many to be decidedly harmonious to her own (Delannoy, 1993). Her legacy is not that she had a large vocal range or the bold dynamicism of Bessie Smith, but that her emotional delivery and improvisation skills rivaled some of the great jazz instrumentalists and sold out theatres.

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Holiday was born April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia to a teenage couple, and such began her very difficult childhood. With an absent father and her mother often away for work, Holiday was raised mainly by her mother’s half-sister, Eva Miller, and Miller’s mother-in-law. Her mother’s absence shaped Holiday into a troubled child; she faced juvenile court for truancy, and she fully dropped out of school at age 11 (Greene, 2007). For a time, she worked at her mother’s café, until one day her mother came back to a male neighbor trying to sexually assault her. This landed Holiday in protective custody during the investigation, and after her release, Holiday found a housekeeping job at a brothel (Holiday, 2018).

In a brothel, Holiday was first introduced to jazz, influenced by musicians such as Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. However, in just two years of work, Holiday tragically became a victim of human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation. She was imprisoned for prostitution, and after her release, her legendary jazz career began (Greene, 2007).

In her early teen years, Holiday sang in Harlem nightclubs, quickly gaining popularity, and eventually catching the attention of producer Joe Hammond. Hammond immediately drew the connection between Holiday’s style and that of her early inspiration, Louis Armstrong; he said, “[her] singing almost changed my music tastes and my musical life, because she was the first girl singer I’d come across who actually sang like an improvising jazz genius” (Holiday, 2019). In 1935, Hammond signed Holiday to her first record label under Brunswick, during which she recorded her “claim to fame,” “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” (Greene, 2007).

Around this time, Holiday also began a lifelong friendship with tenor saxophonist Lester Young. The two met at a Harlem Jam session, and were both part of the Count Basie band. Although they report their relationship was strictly platonic, Young and Holiday had a great admiration for each other. He would call her “Lady Day,” and she would call him “Prez,” after President Franklin Roosevelt (Delannoy, 1993). The pair also bonded over their growing obsession with drugs, alcohol, and gambling. Their insecure personalities coupled with the grueling nature of touring and the racism they faced drove them to drug use. African American poet Kamau Daaoud recalls, “the whole drug scene, the alcohol thing which were the pacifiers for pain, it was a way of escape for these sensitive people.” (Holiday, 2019). Although this was just the beginning of Holiday’s hugely successful career, her life would be forever changed by her developing drug addiction.

By the end of the 1930s, Holiday had finished touring with Basie’s band and was well known for her radio hits. This made her performance of ‘Strange Fruits’ in 1939 one of her most famous works (Greene, 2007). The song was originally a poem written by Abel Meeropol two years earlier and referenced lynching to protest racism against black Americans. Holiday first performed ‘Strange Fruit’ in an integrated nightclub, albeit reluctantly, later admitting that the song brought back unpleasant memories of her father’s death (Holiday, 2018). According to her, Holiday’s father died of a lung disease after he was denied medical care on a racial basis. Holiday wrote in her autobiography: ‘It reminds me of how Pop died, but I have to keep singing it, not only because people ask for it, but because twenty years after Pop’s death, what killed him still happening in the south” (Holiday, 2018). The song caused controversy, forcing Holiday to change record labels for the record, but it ultimately helped boost Holiday’s popularity. Even more remarkable was how the ‘Strange Fruit’ demonstrated the anger and plight of blacks in the 20th century, contributing to the social momentum that led to the Civil Rights Movement (Greene, 2007).

Another popular recording of Holiday’s was “God Bless the Child,” which was based on a conversation between her and her mother. Upon gaining commercial success, Holiday was able to help fund her mother’s restaurant called Mom Holiday’s. However, eventually falling into financial hardship herself, Holiday reported: “I walked in the restaurant like a stockholder and asked [for money]. Mom turned me down flat. She wouldn’t give me a cent” (Holiday, 2019). To this, Holiday responded, “God bless the child that’s got his own,” which inspired the lyrics to “God Bless the Child.” The song became her most popular recording, selling over a million records and landing a spot on the Grammy Hall of Fame (Greene, 2007).

With her rise to fame also began Holiday’s decline, as she fell victim to many issues in her personal and professional life. Her years of drug use and alcoholism led her to start using hard drugs in the 1940’s after marrying trombonist Jimmy Monroe. Friends of the couple would describe Monroe as a “hustler,” and Holiday even wrote the song “Don’t Explain” after she caught lipstick on Monroe’s collar (Holiday, 2019). Holiday had an ongoing affair with her drug dealer, Joe Guy, leading to her divorce in 1947 (Greene, 2007).

In the same year, Holiday was arrested for possession of narcotics, and she said of the resulting court case, “[it] was called ‘The United States of America versus Billie Holiday’. And that’s just the way it felt” (Holiday, 2018). After being abandoned by her lawyer and pleading guilty, she was sentenced to prison. After her release in 1948, Holiday’s manager suggested a Carnegie Hall comeback concert, to which she was reluctant to agree—she feared that audiences would not still support her after her arrest. However, the sold-out concert was legendary, setting a record for the number of advance tickets purchased (Greene, 2007).

Even with her continued success, Holiday fell back into old habits, and she was arrested in 1949 for possession of opium. Also arrested was her manager and boyfriend at the time, John Levy. Levy was released before Holiday, and only Holiday was charged in a grand jury indictment. Levy also beat and abandoned Holiday the weekend before the trial, and Holiday faced the jury with a tattered suit and a black eye (Holiday, 2018). During the trial, Holiday’s attorney suggested that Levy tried to frame Holiday, in order to steal her fortune before leaving her (Greene, 2007). Falling victim to the hands of abusive men contributed to Holiday’s drug and alcohol problems, and her second arrest had a negative effect on her career.

The 1950s marked the end of Holiday’s fame and fortune. As a result of her conviction, Holiday lost her New York City cabaret card. This was a permit that was required for performers to work in premises where alcohol was sold, and this rule was in effect from Prohibition until 1967. Holiday never got her cabaret card back and she was forced to work for very low wages at several clubs. that will take her away (Delannoy, 2007). Her income also declined as she stopped receiving recording royalties and her recordings went completely out of print in the 1950s (Greene, 2007).

By this time, Holiday’s drug abuse and abusive relationships began to have a more obvious effect on Holiday’s overall health. In 1953, she was featured on ABC’s The Comeback Story, making the struggles in her personal life public (Holiday, 2019). Her voice also grew coarse and fragile, losing its former vibrancy. Her career made a brief comeback with the release of her 1956 autobiography Lady Sings the Blues and its accompanying LP (Holiday, 2018). The same year, Holiday also performed in two majorly successful concerts at Carnegie Hall. In 1957, she married her fourth husband, Mafia enforcer Louis McKay, who was abusive–as most of the men in her life were (Greene, 2007).

Holiday’s career officially ended following her cirrhosis diagnosis in 1959. Although the disease was caused by her alcoholism, she continued to drink (against her doctor’s orders). In May, 1959, she was admitted to the New York Metropolitan Hospital as a result of her worsening liver and heart diseases. While she was in the hospital, she was arrested by The Federal Bureau of Narcotics for drug possession, and her room was placed under police guard. She died on July 17th, 1959 at age 44 from heart failure cause by her liver cirrhosis, and at her time of death she only had $0.70 in her bank account (Greene, 2007).

Her life taken too soon after suffering through financial hardships, abusive relationships, and drug abuse, Billie Holiday left a lasting impact on jazz musicians everywhere. Frank Sinatra said about Holiday, “Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years.” This is undoubtedly true, given the large audiences she reached from touring with big bands, releasing countless records, and performing sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall. Holiday’s talent for improvisation and iconic singing style is still enjoyed by musicians around the world. 

24 May 2022

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