Billie Holiday

1. Ritz stated (2006) that according to some sources, Eleanora Fagan Gough (this was real Billie’s name) was born on April 7, 1915, and according to some others – three years earlier. Her grandfather has been one of the slaves in Virginia. Her father, Clarence Holiday, and mother, Sadie Fegen, have never been married. When Eleanor was born, her mother was only 13 years old. Her father, slightly older, abandoned them soon after the daughter’s birth. He learned to play a guitar and banjo, and became a professional musician. He played in Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra. Many years later, Billy met her father in New York, and although she often invited guitarists to the recording studio, she never turned to her father. Billie’s mother was useless and bad. Little Holiday never had the normal care and often remained unattended. Actually, she had no childhood. She never played with dolls like other kids and being six years old she started to work (Ritz, 2006, p. 78).

2. Billie’s birthplace was Philadelphia, but almost all her life she lived in New-York (except of her tours). And she died in New-York too.

3. Despite the absence of any vocal school and lack of technical training, Billie Holiday’s unique style, her inimitable phrasing and penetrating drama turned it into an outstanding jazz vocalist of the world class. White gardenias, she decorated her hair with, became her symbol of a good character.

4. Billie has never played any musical instruments. The main instrument was her voice. Her vocal sounded like something incredible. Her singing was a real miracle. It was something more than a technical skill and extraordinary purity of voice that set her on a par with the singing Titans: Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. Holiday had a very unique and strong personality.

5. Modern music owes revolutionary changes in the pop singing art to Billie Holiday. She was the first popular jazz vocalist, who conquered the audience’s hearts by the dramatic talent, soulful style, and brilliant execution of classic blues and jazz. Billie Holiday has broken the existing stereotype, filling her songs with real feelings. She was indebted to Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, but the subtle artistry and intimate vocal style were her own unique features, which could not be studied mechanically. Her emotional nakedness made entirely understandable shock among interchangeable singers and similar soloists.

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Holiday possessed an excellent vocal technique, which stood out against the backdrop of her contemporaries. Billie Holiday’s personal life became well known to the public (strange connections, addictions, depressions); thus, she earned scandalous reputation. The most heartfelt and perfect vocal numbers in the modern music’s history Lover Man, Don’t Explain, Strange Fruit, and her own composition God Bless the Child were the best pages of the bibliography grabbing people’s attention for more than a half century. She has left the mark on all her performances.

6. Billie’s style of writing did not fit in the time period. It was her own style. According to The Official Site of Lady Day (2012), in the spring of 1937, Holiday went on tour with the Count Basie’s Orchestra as the second vocalist, speaking together (or separately) with soloist Jimmy Rushing. Billy has spent less than a year in this orchestra. The official reason for dismissal was bad temper and poor discipline. But, apparently, the initiative came from the leadership of music publishers, who were dissatisfied with the fact that the actress flatly refused to sing the female’s blues standard of the 20s.

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Initially, the situation was in her favor. In 1938, Billie started singing in the new team under the leadership of Artie Show. Holiday has found the common language with her new colleagues, but in spite of their support, the concert’s organizers began to show their displeasure openly. The case was in her unorthodox singing style and color of skin. After a few humiliating situations, Holiday has left the group indignantly. And once again the difficulties turned into a blessing. Free from any obligations, she gave a great concert in the ‘Cafe Society’ jazz club. It was the first popular nightlife among the regulars, who turned out to people of all races and nationalities.

7. Billie Holiday created compositions in her head. All Holiday’s songs came from her soul and appeared in a life.

8. According to Greene (2007), when Billie was beginning her career, even all the often standard and uninteresting stuff was changed beyond the recognition. Avoiding mechanical repetition of the rhythm and melody, she used them as a base for phrasing a delay-free rate, with unexpected harmonies borrowed from her favorite brass musicians Louis Armstrong and Lester Young; later she admitted that she loved to imitate a trumpet (Greene, 2007, p. 46).

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9. According to Pinkney (2008), Billie had her first chance to become a singer in 1933. During the comic dance show in a bar illegally traded alcohol, an accompanist asked her if she knew how to sing. Supposedly, everything has started from this joke. In fact, by that time she has worked already in various Harlem’s clubs under the borrowed name Billie Dove (Pinkey, 2008, p. 71).

According to Greene (2007), since 1950, Billie Holiday had a period of gradual decline. Heroin and alcohol abuse, as well as problems in her personal life, have imposed a heavy imprint on her. Holiday’s voice sat down slowly, and despite the occasional glimpses (such as records for Norman Grantsa, which began in 1952) she has never become popular again, though she still considered quite one of the greatest jazz stars deservedly. In the last album Lady in Satin, the voice of 40-year old Billie Holiday has sounded like the voice of eighty years old woman, struggling to pronounce words. The end of her life was very sad: the dying singer was arrested on heroin possession. So, she died under house arrest in July 17, 1959, in New York (Greene, 2007, p. 158).

According to Ritz (2006), Billie Holiday’s story was told by herself. It was published in 1956 under the Lady Sings the Blues title. In the autobiography, Billie glossed over her life, but told frankly about many of the most intimate moments, which only made her more famous.

In the era of digital recording, almost the entire array of studio and live Holiday’s material were subjected to the digital processing, and were reissued by the companies, where she worked. The most complete edition appeared on the Columbia label – The Quintessential Billie Holiday on nine discs.

In 2000 the name of Billie Holiday appeared in the Hall of Rock’n’Roll Fame (Ritz, 2006, p. 163).

10. According to Pinkney (2008), in 1933, professionals paid attention to the 18-year old singer. Beginning producer, John Hammond (who was only three years older than Billy), has written to the ‘Melody Maker’ magazine a praise note about her, and led her to the famous Benny Goodman’s performance. That was the true beginning. Having made a trial demo at Columbia Studios, Holiday became a soloist of a small group, led by Goodman; and in November of 1933, she released her first single Your Mother’s Son-In-Law. She has not returned to the studio for over a year, but during this time passed a good school of survival on the New York’s club scene. In early 1935, she managed to make her debut on the Apollo Theater’s stage in Harlem, and played in a short film with Duke Ellington (Pinkney, 2008, p. 29).

Accompanied by the suddenly emerged ensemble, led by pianist Teddy Wilson, she recorded a series of obscure one-day songs. In the middle of 30s, the black musicians of the other repertoire could not even dream of it. In the era of swing music, publishers save up the best material for promoted secular orchestras and popular white singers. But even at the extremely low songs’ quality, Holiday and her musicians (among them were excellent professionals: the trumpeter Roy Eldridge, alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, tenor saxophonist Ben Webster and Chu Berry), managed to transform them and breathe a new life. They wrote the best pages in the history of jazz: What a Little Moonlight Can Do, Twenty-Four Hours a Day, If You Were Mine, not to mention the brilliant compositions Eeny Meeny Miney Mo and Yankee Doodle Never Went to Town (Pinkney, 2008, p. 62).

Inspired musicians’ play and a growing vocal Holiday’s prowess turned her into quite a popular actress, who could be written regularly for the minor labels: Brunswick and Vocalion (Columbia units).

According to the Bio True Story (2012), in 1936, Billie Holiday traveled a lot with groups led by Jimmie Lunsford and Fletcher Henderson. After it, she returned to New York to spend a few more sessions. This time she was accompanied by a small ensemble, selected from participants of Count Basie’s Orchestra, which had been recently discovered by John Hammond. Some of the musicians (tenor saxophone Lester Young and trumpeter Buck Clayton), who accompanied Billy, have remained her colleagues and close friends forever. In the late 30s, this trio has created a series of virtuoso works, which decorated a discography of each. It should be noted that from 1933 to 1944 years, Holiday recorded over 200 songs, but did not receive a percentage of their sales.

11. Billie Holiday’s major types of compositions were jazz. She was focused only on it. Of course, her compositions were really special among the others, but still they were in a jazz style.

12. According to Ritz (2006), after Billie was raped, she was sent to a penal Catholic school. The trustee board has reached a decision that she had to stay in the school until the age of majority. However, the family’s friend helped her to be released after two years. In 1927, Holiday moved to New Jersey and then to Brooklyn with her mother. In New York she helped her mother around the house, but soon she began to earn on the street: she was engaged in prostitution. Also, she washed floors in the infamous ‘Alice Dean’s’ bar, where she heard recordings of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith at the first time (Ritz, 2006, p. 101).

13. Billie Holiday never had children. She was married twice. According to Greene (2007), in the middle of 40s, Billy Holiday entered one of the most challenging periods of her life. Addicted to alcohol and marijuana, along with her first husband, Johnnie Monroe, she began to smoke opium. The marriage was broken. And, literally, from the Monroe’s embrace, Billy went down the aisle with the trumpeter, Joe Guy.

In 1947, despite the triumphant and profitable concert at New York’s Town Hall, and a role in the New Orleans film with Louis Armstrong, Billie still had financial problems. Soon, her mother died and that shock worsened the situation. She got arrested on eight months for heroin (Greene, 2007, p. 124).

14. During her work in the ‘Cafe Society’, the Strange Fruit song has appeared in Holiday’s repertoire. And exactly this song has brought her career to a whole new level. The song was the angry rebuke to the blatant racism that dominated in the southern states. Billy turned the Strange Fruit into the climax of her concerts. Though, John Hammond refused to record this song (not so much of political reasons, but because of too sharp and candid images), he gave the singer to record it for the Commodore label (the owner of the jazz records’ store was Milt Gabler). Immediately, after the Strange Fruit released, the single was banned on the many radio stations. But the song became popular with the jukeboxes’ help.

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According to the Encyclopedia of World Biography (2012), until 1942, Holiday continued to record for the different divisions of Columbia label. In 1941, one of the most famous songs God Bless the Child emerged in Billie’s repertoire (she wrote music and lyrics herself). This song was about hard way of a little child, where Billie singing about herself and her mother. This song is full of anger and pain.

The third great hit was a Lover Man song, published in 1944 on a new Decca label. The song was about romantic feelings and true passion. It was written specifically for Milt Gabler Holiday. Decca Records opened a “green” way to the artist. They made of her the main label’s star. Until the late 40s, she enjoyed the generous patronage of Decca Records, recording a number of great songs that became popular and truly loved. The best among them were: Them There Eyes, Crazy He Calls Me and a cover song of Bessie Smith Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.

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