19 July 2007
Most of us are familiar with the movie "Lady Sings The Blues" starring Diana Ross. It is a fairly good movie, but it has little to do with the real Billie Holiday other than the songs. On July 17, 1959 singer Billie Holiday died of cardiac failure at age 44. Despite her tragic life, she is considered one of the greatest jazz singers of all time.
Born Elinore Fagan she was the illegitimate daughter of guitar player Clarence Holiday. She grew up poor with her mother in Baltimore and by age 12, Holiday was working as a prostitute and singing in the back rooms of bars. She and her mother went to New York when she was 13 or 14, and they were both arrested for prostitution in 1929, when Holiday was 14.
Throughout her tumultuous childhood and teen years, Holiday continued singing. At a club in 1933, a recording executive heard her and persuaded her to start making recordings. Between 1935 and 1942 she made more than 100 records, including "Body and Soul," "Swing, Brother, Swing," and "Laughing at Life."
In 1956 Billie Holiday sat down with ghostwriter William Dufty and recounted the story of her life. At times to justify the telling of her tale she issues warnings about the dangers of drug use. Certain facts of Holiday’s account of her childhood remain contested but there is no contest over Holiday’s contribution to the jazz vocal tradition. Every discussion about music ends in an anecdote about one of the many sadists, racists, and opportunists that populate her story. She seldom connects the wretchedness of her early life and her later drug use. Between pleas for understanding for addicts she blames herself for not being strong enough to resist heroin. There is rage at the injustices she suffered, but these experiences may have been what made her music so revolutionary, and that in turn render her words so interesting. Ultimately the lesson we take away from her story is not the warnings against drugs, but that sometimes, against the odds, beauty grows where it receives the least bit of sun.
In 1937, she performed at the Apollo Theater. In 1937, she toured with Count Basie and with Artie Shaw in 1938. In 1939, she spent nine months singing regularly at a New York club called Cafe Society, where she became a star. Her emotionally wringing performance of "Strange Fruit," a song about a lynching, became legendary. She gravitated toward the poignant blues songs--"Lover Man," "I Cover the Waterfront," and "God Bless the Child" among them. Holiday was not overtly political but Strange Fruit was an early cry for Civil Rights and perhaps the most powerful protest song of the last century.
Good Morning Heartache