Lorna O’ Hanlon is a writer and contributor to Historianspeaks.org.
Billie Holiday is one of the most iconic African American jazz vocalists of the twentieth century. Born to a teenager mother and abandoned by her father at an early age, her childhood was troubled. She was chronically abused and sexually assaulted. As an adult, she struggled with a lifelong addiction to narcotics. Yet, despite these challenges Holliday excelled in musical expression. There she found a refuge and her artistry blossomed. Although her story is one of tremendous triumph and unfathomable travail, through it all, Holiday managed to produce some of the most memorable jazz music of our time. This fact is a testament to her vocal talent, skillful artistry and determination to address societal ills such as racism.
In the 1930’s, Holiday began singing in Harlem nightclubs, using the pseudonym ‘Billie Halliday’ later changed to Holiday. Her early influences were Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. Producer John Hammond said her voice was like “an improvised jazz genius.” Holiday’s singing style was unique, resonating with sounds of jazz and blues. The singer was 18 when she made her first recording with Benny Goodman. Her career thrived throughout the 1930s and 1940s. She sang briefly with the Count Basie orchestra in 1937. While working with band, she befriended the saxophonist Lester Young. Young gave Holiday her famous nickname “Lady Day.”
Holiday was hired by Artie Shaw, the famous white composer and bandleader, in 1938. She was one of the few Black female singers to work with a white orchestra at the time. The racist backlash was immediate. The band hired a white singer. Holiday could not sit with the band on stage. Promoters objected to her race and vocal style. Off stage, she was prevented from using the dining room and forced to enter and exit through the kitchen.
In the 1940’s, Holiday struck out on her own. Performing at New York Café’s Society, she began to develop her stage persona, which included wearing gardenias in her hair and singing with her head tilted back. Two of her most memorable and songs were produced during this period—“God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit.” Holiday published “God Bless the Child” with Columbia Records. “Strange Fruit” became Holiday’s trademark ballad. It reflected on the personal and collective trauma among African Americans caused by lynching, an extralegal violent act that involved hanging and bodily mutilation. Although nervous about the response, Holiday debuted the song in front of a white audience, some of whom applauded, many left angrily. Many radio stations banned the song. Holiday performed the song repeatedly over the next 20 years, always with a single spotlight and leaving the stage when it was turned off.
Holiday ventured into film as well. In her only major film role, Holiday starred with Louis Armstrong in the 1947 film New Orleans. Many of their scenes were cut to avoid the impression that Black people created jazz. “They had taken miles of footage of music and scenes,” Holiday said, but “none of it was left in the picture. And very damn little of me.” Holiday played the role of a maid in the film.
Despite continued popularity in the late 1940’s and 1950’s, Holiday struggled with alcohol and drug addiction. She was arrested at home for possession of narcotics in May 1947. She was convicted and served almost a year in a West Virginia prison. Eleven days after her release Billie Holiday played to a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall. She lost her New York Cabaret card due to her drug conviction and could not perform where alcohol was served. Her income was drastically reduced, and she was frequently cheated out of her royalties. By the 1950s, her records were no longer printed.
In May 1959, Billie Holiday was hospitalized, severely ill with heart disease and cirrhosis due to alcohol addiction. While in her hospital bed, her room was raided and she was arrested and charged with drug possession. She died penniless at the age of 44.
Billie Holiday, “Lady Day” was a jazz pioneer whose improvisational style and vocal range paved the way for countless performers. Her trademark songs, “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit” are jazz staples today. Her personal style in which she adorned her hair with gardenias is the subject of many iconic photos today. It is not uncommon for contemporary artists to cite Billie Holiday as their inspiration or as a role model for racial activism. Her influence on jazz, popular music and culture is timeless.
This post was previously published on historianspeaks.org.
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