Considered by many to be the greatest jazz vocalist of all time, billie holiday lived a stormy and difficult life. Her singing expressed an incredible depth of emotion that spoke as much of hard times and injustice as of triumph. though her career was relatively short and often erratic, she left behind as fine a body of work as any vocalist before or since.
Born Eleanora Fagan in 1915, Billie Holiday spent much of her youth in Baltimore, Maryland. Raised primarily by her mother, Holiday had only a tenuous connection to her father, who was a jazz guitarist in Fletcher Henderson’s band. Living in extreme poverty, Holiday dropped out of school in the fifth grade and found a job running errands at a brothel. When she was twelve years old, Holiday moved with her mother to Harlem, where she was eventually arrested for prostitution.
Desperate for money, Holiday looked for a job as a dancer in a Harlem speakeasy. when there was no opening for a dancer, she auditioned as a singer. Long interested in both jazz and blues, Holiday wowed the owner and found herself singing at the popular Pod and Jerry log cabin. This led to a series of other jobs in Harlem jazz clubs, and in 1933 she had her first big breakthrough. She was just twenty when well-connected jazz writer-producer John Hammond heard her fill in for a better-known performer. soon after, he reported that she was the best singer he had ever heard. Her bluesy vocal style brought a slow, gritty quality to jazz standards that were often upbeat and light. this combination made for soulful and distinctive renditions of already standard songs. By slowing down the pitch with soulful vocals that readjust timing and rhythm, she added a new dimension to jazz singing.
With Hammond’s encouragement, Holiday spent much of the 1930s working with a variety of jazz greats, including Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Duke Ellington, Ben Webster, and most importantly, saxophonist lester young. together, young and festive, they would create some of the greatest jazz recordings of all time. they were close friends throughout their lives, giving each other their now-famous nicknames “lady day” and “prez”. A supporter of the unique style of parties, Young helped her create music that would best highlight her unconventional talents. with songs like “this year’s kisses” and “mean to me”, the two composed a perfect collaboration.
However, it wasn’t until 1939, with his song “strange fruit,” that the holiday found its true audience. A deeply powerful song about lynching, “Strange Fruit” was a revelation in its haunting and emotional condemnation of racism. Holiday’s voice could be calm and strong at the same time. Songs like “God Bless the Child” and “Gloomy Sunday” expressed not only her undeniable talent, but her incredible pain as well. Due to constant racial attacks, Holiday had a difficult time touring and spent much of the 1940s working in New York. As her popularity grew, Holiday’s personal life remained troubled. Although she was one of the highest paid entertainers of the time, much of her income went to pay for her severe drug addictions. though plagued by health problems, bad relationships and addictions, holiday remained an actor without equal.
In the late 1940s, after the death of her mother, Holiday’s heroin addiction became so severe that she was repeatedly arrested and eventually committed to an institution in hopes of kicking her habit. By 1950, the authorities denied him a license to work in establishments selling alcohol. although she continued to record and perform after her, this marked the most important turning point in her career. Over the next seven years, Ella Holiday would slip deeper into alcoholism and begin to lose control of her once-perfect voice. In 1959, after the death of her good friend Lester Young and with almost nothing to her name, Billie Holiday died at the age of forty-four. during her life she had fought against racism and sexism, and in the face of great personal difficulties she triumphed through a profound artistic spirit. It is a tragedy that only after her death did a society, which had repressed her so many times, realize that in her voice one could hear the true voice of the times.