Billie Holiday (1915-1959) was one of the greatest American jazz singers of all time, if not the greatest. She reached her height in the 1940s and 1950s. Her singing range was limited and she had no training, but she was able to get her feelings across through song better than almost anyone:
If you find a tune that’s got something to do with you, you just feel it, and when you sing it, other people feel it, too,
It was not quite that simple. There is also the way she follows the beat instead of singing on beat, how she shapes her notes, how her singing is so bare and plain, etc. It also helps that her life was such a mess, full of so much pain and despair.
To misquote Gil Scott-Heron, Billie Holiday is a ray of truth in a world of plastic people.
She was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Baltimore, the daughter of a jazz musician, Clarence Holiday, who soon disappeared from her life. She was raped at age ten and by age 14, in 1929, she was a prostitute in the world of the Harlem Renaissance. She loved listening to Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith and sang, for herself and her mother.
She tried out as a dancer at a Harlem night club and failed. But then the piano man said she should try out as a singer. Her singing moved people to tears.
In 1932 John Hammond of Columbia Records heard her in Harlem and a year later she started recording for Columbia. They gave her the songs the white singers did not want – and she made them into masterpieces.
In the late 1930s she went on the road with Count Basie and then with Artie Shaw. With Shaw she became one of the first blacks to sing with an all-white band. Not only that, they went through the Jim Crow South. But the racism was too much. She quit the band and came back to New York.
In 1939 she recorded “Strange Fruit”. It was a hit among the interracial, left-wing set at the Cafe Society in Greenwich Village in New York.
In 1941 she married Jimmy Monroe. He got her hooked on opium and heroin. Now her life became an endless scene of bad boyfriends who got her drugs, spent her money and beat her up. She was arrested for possession of narcotics in 1947, 1949, 1951, 1956 and 1959.
As a convicted felon she could no longer perform at most clubs in New York, though she could still record and did.
The main record companies she sang for:
- 1933-1942: Columbia
- 1939 and 1944: Commodore
- 1944-1950: Decca (later known as MCA)
- 1952-1957: Verve
In 1956 she performed at Carnegie Hall, a great honour for any singer and a rare one for a black singer in those days.
Then she started losing her voice. Some say it made her singing even better, but others cannot bear to hear it.
In 1959, after years of drugs, her liver, kidney and heart gave out and she died. She was 44.
– Abagond, 2010.