Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan; April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959) was an American jazz and swing music singer. Nicknamed “Lady Day” by her friend and music partner, Lester Young, Holiday had an innovative influence on jazz music and pop singing. Her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo. She was known for her vocal delivery and improvisational skills.
After a turbulent childhood, Holiday began singing in nightclubs in Harlem, where she was heard by producer John Hammond, who liked her voice. She signed a recording contract with Brunswick in 1935. Collaborations with Teddy Wilson produced the hit “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”, which became a jazz standard. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Holiday had mainstream success on labels such as Columbia and Decca.
Billie Holiday, aged two, in 1917:
By the late 1940s, however, she was beset with legal troubles and drug abuse. After a short prison sentence, she performed at a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall. She was a successful concert performer throughout the 1950s with two further sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall. Because of personal struggles and an altered voice, her final recordings were met with mixed reaction but were mild commercial successes. Her final album, Lady in Satin, was released in 1958. Holiday died of cirrhosis on July 17, 1959, at age 44.
Holiday won four Grammy Awards, all of them posthumously, for Best Historical Album. She was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame. She was also inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, though not in that genre; the website states that “Billie Holiday changed jazz forever”. Several films about her life have been released, most recently The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021).
Billie Holiday performing at the Club Bali, Washington,
with Al Dunn (drums), and Bobby Tucker (piano) in 1948:
By early 1959, Holiday was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. Although she had initially stopped drinking on her doctor’s orders, it was not long before she relapsed. By May 1959, she had lost 20 pounds (9.1 kg). Her manager, Joe Glaser, jazz critic Leonard Feather, photojournalist Allan Morrison, and the singer’s own friends all tried in vain to persuade her to go to a hospital. On May 31, 1959, Holiday was taken to Metropolitan Hospital in New York for treatment of both liver and heart disease. According to writer and journalist Johann Hari, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics under Harry J. Anslinger had been targeting Holiday since at least 1939, when she started to perform “Strange Fruit”; However, this allegation has been disputed, with historian Lewis Porter noting that “there was no federal objection to the song “Strange Fruit,” nor was there any campaign to suppress it” and Holiday was instead pursued by Bureau of Narcotics mainly for her history of drug use. Narcotics police went to her hospital room, claiming they had found heroin in her bedroom. A grand jury was summoned to indict her, and she was arrested, handcuffed to her bed, and placed under police guard. According to Hari, after ten days, methadone was discontinued as part of Anslinger’s policy; Hari accused Anslinger of being responsible for her death. On July 15, she received last rites. She died at age 44 at 3:10 a.m. on July 17, 1959, of pulmonary edema and heart failure caused by cirrhosis of the liver.
In her final years Holiday had been progressively swindled out of her earnings by McKay and she died with US$0.70 in the bank. Her funeral Mass was held on July 21, 1959, at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in Manhattan. She was buried at Saint Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx. The story of her burial plot and how it was managed by her estranged husband, Louis McKay, was documented on NPR in 2012.
Gilbert Millstein of The New York Times, who was the announcer at Holiday’s 1956 Carnegie Hall concerts and wrote parts of the sleeve notes for the album The Essential Billie Holiday (see above), described her death in these sleeve notes, dated 1961:
Billie Holiday died in Metropolitan Hospital, New York, on Friday, July 17, 1959, in the bed in which she had been arrested for illegal possession of narcotics a little more than a month before, as she lay mortally ill; in the room from which a police guard had been removed – by court order – only a few hours before her death. She had been strikingly beautiful, but her talent was wasted. The worms of every kind of excess – drugs were only one – had eaten her. The likelihood exists that among the last thoughts of this cynical, sentimental, profane, generous and greatly talented woman of 44 was the belief that she was to be arraigned the following morning. She would have been, eventually, although possibly not that quickly. In any case, she removed herself finally from the jurisdiction of any court here below.
When Holiday died, The New York Times published a short obituary on page 15 without a byline. She left an estate of $1,000, and her best recordings from the 1930s were mostly out of print. Holiday’s public stature grew in the following years. In 1961, she was voted to the Down Beat Hall Of Fame, and soon after Columbia reissued nearly one hundred of her early records. In 1972, Diana Ross’ portrayal of Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues was nominated for an Oscar and won a Golden Globe. Holiday was posthumously nominated for 23 Grammy awards. (wikipedia)
Most of this excellent CD features one of Billie Holiday’s finest concert recordings of the 1950s. Recorded in Europe before an admiring audience, this enjoyable set finds Lady Day performing seven of her standards with her trio and joining in for jam session versions of “Billie’s Blues” and “Lover Come Back to Me” with an all-star group starring clarinetist Buddy DeFranco, vibraphonist Red Norvo and guitarist Jimmy Raney. These performances (which find Holiday in stronger voice than on her studio recordings of the period) have also been included in Verve’s massive CD box set. This program concludes with Holiday’s four rare sides for Aladdin in 1951 (between her Decca and Verve periods) which are highlighted by two blues and “Detour Ahead,” and her 1942 studio recording of “Trav’lin’ Light” with Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra. (by Scott Yanow)
Carl Drinkard (piano)
Billie Holiday (vocals)
Elaine Leighton (drums)
Red Mitchell (bass)
Beryl Booker (piano on 10. + 11.)
Sonny Clark (piano on 10. + 11.)
Buddy DeFranco (clarinet on 10. + 11.)
Tiny Grimes (guitar on 12. – 15.)
Heywood Henry (saxophone on 12. – 15.)
Red Norvo (vibraphone on 10. + 11.)
Mike Pingitore (guitar on 16.)
Jimmy Raney (guitar on 10.+ 11.)
Artie Shapiro (bass on 16.)
Bobby Tucker (piano on 12. – 15.)
unknown bass & drums on 12. – 15.
01. Announcement by Leonard Feather (in German) 0.29
02. Blue Moon (Hart/Rodgers) 2.15
03. All Of Me (Marks/Simons) 1.43
04. My Man (Charles/Pollack/Willemetz/Yvain) 2.51
05. Them Their Eyes (Holiday) 1.40
06. I Cried For You (Arnheim/Freed/Lyman) 3.22
07. What A Little Moonlight Can Do (Woods) 2.45
08. I Cover The Waterfront (Green/Heyman) 3.31
09. Billie’s Blues (Holiday) 11.34
10. Lover, Come Back To Me (Hammerstein II/Romberg) 6.39
11. Blue Turning Grey Over You (Razaf/Waller) 2.02
12. Be Fair With Me Baby (Darnell) 2.36
13. Rocky Mountain Blues (Haywood/Tucker) 3.04
14. Detour Ahead (Carter/Ellis/Freigo) 3.03
15. Trav’lin’ Light (Mercer/Mundy/Young) 3.17
Tracks 2 to 11 recorded live in Köln, Germany on January 5, 1954
Tracks 12 to 15 recorded in New York City on April 29, 1951 for Aladdin Records