Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was 18, she was 16, and I was three. That’s the opening sentence of Billie Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, and it leads into one of the best-known and most distressingly poignant stories in jazz history.
A poverty stricken upbringing, a victim of attempted rape before she was 12, hooked on narcotics in her early teens, a $2 prostitute in Harlem at 15…it was not exactly and auspicious beginning for someone who was destined to become the First Lady of jazz. She struggled against drug addiction all her life and when she died, in Harlem’s Metropolitan Hospital on July 17th, 1959, she was under police guard as an addict. She was destroyed by heroin and alcohol. She was born poor and she died poor. Her bank pass book showed a balance of 70 cents. Eleanor Gough McKay Holiday was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on April 7th, 1915, the daughter of Sadie Fagan and Clarence Holiday, who was later to take the guitar chair in the Fletcher Henderson orchestra. When she was 13 years old, Billie Holiday moved to New York to live with her mother in Harlem.
By the time she was 15 she was singing in Harlem clubs and was eventually discovered by the celebrated jazz producer John Hammond, when he dropped into Monette Moore’s on 133rd Street one night in 1933. “I decided that night that she was the best jazz singer I had ever heard.” He recalls. In November of that year Billie made her recording debut with Benny Goodman’s band. There followed a date with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and then, in July 1935, the first of a series of recordings with Teddy Wilson’s Orchestra that were really to establish her reputation as an incomparably gifted interpreter of the popular songs of the day. She also recorded with Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw, Count Basie, Benny Carter, Eddie Heywood, Sy Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton and her own orchestra over the next 15 years. But the most important and compatible of Billie’s musical associates was Lester Young, with whom she had a deep musical and personal understanding. Young features on some of Billie Holiday’s most memorable recordings between 1937 and 1957. Billie holiday made a major European tour in January 1954 as part of a Jazz Club USA package with Buddy de Franco and Red Norvo, playing some 40 concerts in 30 days and winning widespread acclaim. But the heroin addiction and alcoholism were taking their ravaging toll and within a little over five years she was dead – on July 17th, 1959.
“She died of everything” someone wrote. Billie Holiday, whose inspiration was more instrumental than vocal, used to say that her aim was to get Bessie Smith’s feeling and Louis Armstrong’s style. She had her whole being in singing and left behind her a legacy of superb vocal jazz recordings. She invested the sometimes trivial popular songs of her time with soulful sincerity and enhanced their musical validity out of all recognition.
As Martin Williams wrote in The Jazz Tradition, “Her particular musical talent was that she could find emotional and melodic beauty in banality” But tragically, in the words of her earliest champion, John Hammond, she had “neither the wisdom nor the strength to make the most of her opportunities”.
photo: from booklet 'All of Me' (label 2xHD)