BILLIE HOLIDAY Biography - Musicians


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Name: Billie Holiday                                                                   
Birth name: Eleanora Fagan                                                             
Also known as Lady Day                                                                 
Born: 7 April 1915 Baltimore, Maryland                                                 
Died: 17 July 1959                                                                     
Billie Holiday (April 7, 1915 - July 17, 1959), born Eleanora Fagan and later         
nicknamed Lady Day (see "Jazz royalty" regarding similar nicknames), was an           
American jazz singer, composer, a seminal influence on jazz and pop singers, and       
generally regarded as one of the greatest female jazz vocalists.                       
Billie Holiday had a difficult childhood, which greatly affected her life and         
career. Much of her childhood is clouded by conjecture and legend, some of it         
propagated by her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, published in 1956. This         
account is known to contain many inaccuracies.                                         
Her professional pseudonym was taken from Billie Dove, an actress she admired,         
and Clarence Holiday, her probable father. At the outset of her career, she           
spelled her last name "Halliday," presumably to distance herself from her             
neglectful father, but eventually changed it back to "Holiday."                       
There is some controversy regarding Holiday's paternity, stemming from a copy of       
her birth certificate in the Baltimore archives that lists the father as a "Frank     
DeViese". Some historians consider this an anomaly, probably inserted by a             
hospital or government worker.                                                         
Thrown out of her parent's home in Baltimore, Sadie Fagan moved to Philadelphia       
where Billie was born. Mother and child eventually settled in a poor section of       
Baltimore. Her parents married when she was three, but they soon divorced,             
leaving her to be raised largely by her mother and other relatives. At the age         
of 11, she reported that she had been raped. That claim, combined with her             
frequent truancy, resulted in her being sent to The House of the Good Shepherd,       
a Catholic reform school, in 1925. It was only through the assistance of a             
family friend that she was released two years later. Scarred by these                 
experiences, Holiday moved to New York City with her mother in 1928. In 1929           
Holiday's mother discovered a neighbor, Wilbert Rich, in the act of raping her         
daughter; Rich was sentenced to three months in jail.                                 
According to Billie Holiday's accounts, she was recruited by a brothel, worked         
as a prostitute in 1940, and was eventually imprisoned for a short time. It was       
in Harlem in the early 1930s that she started singing for tips in various night       
clubs. According to legend, penniless and facing eviction, she sang "Travelin         
All Alone" in a local club and reduced the audience to tears. She later worked         
at various clubs for tips, ultimately landing at Pod's and Jerry's, a well known       
Harlem jazz club. Her early work history is hard to verify, though accounts say       
she was working at a club named Monette's in 1933 when she was discovered by           
talent scout John Hammond.                                                             
Hammond arranged for Holiday to make her recording debut on a 1933 Benny Goodman       
date, and Goodman was also on hand in 1935, when she continued her recording           
career with a group led by pianist Teddy Wilson. Their first collaboration             
included "What A Little Moonlight Can Do" and "Miss Brown To You", which helped       
to establish Billie Holiday as a major vocalist. She began recording under her         
own name a year later, producing a series of extraordinary performances with           
groups comprising the Swing Era's finest musicians.                                   
Wilson was signed to Brunswick by John Hammond for the purpose of recording           
current pop tunes in the new Swing style for the growing jukebox trade. They           
were given free rein to improvise the material. Holiday's amazing method of           
improvising the melody line to fit the emotion was revolutionary (Wilson and           
Holiday took pedestrian pop tunes like "Twenty Four Hours A Day" or "Yankee           
Doodle Never Went To Town" and turn them into Jazz classics with their                 
arrangements). With few exceptions, the recordings she made with Wilson or under       
her own name during the 1930's and early 1940's are regarded as an important           
part of the jazz vocal library.                                                       
Among the musicians who accompanied her frequently was tenor saxophonist Lester       
Young, who had been a boarder at her mother's house in 1934 and with whom she         
had a special rapport. "Well, I think you can hear that on some of the old             
records, you know. Some time I'd sit down and listen to 'em myself, and it sound       
like two of the same voices, if you don't be careful, you know, or the same mind,     
or something like that." Young nicknamed her "Lady Day" and she, in turn,             
dubbed him "Prez." In the late 1930s, she also had brief stints as a big band         
vocalist with Count Basie (1937) and Artie Shaw (1938). The latter association         
placed her among the first black women to work with a white orchestra, an             
arrangement that went against the temper of the times.