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The Life Of Billie Holiday Essay, Research Paper

Billie Holiday, probably the singularly most popular jazz vocalist of all time, was plagued by tragedy her entire life. Her grandfather was one of 17 children of a black Virginia slave impregnated by the white Irish plantation owner. When born in Baltimore, MD, Billie’s parents were only teenagers; her mother (Sally Fagan) the tender age of 13. Billie’s real name was Eleanora Fagan. Shortly after birth, Billie’s father (Clarence Holiday) ran off to go on tour and play guitar with Fletcher Henderson’s band. Billie’s mother often left her to be cared for by relatives. Billie’s early relationship with immediate family was virtually non-existent. Billie essentially grew up alone, feeling unloved and gaining a lifelong inferiority complex that led to her taking great risks with her personal life and becoming self-destructive. At the age of 6, Billie was blamed for her grandmother’s untimely death. At the age of ten, Billie was the victim of a violent rape. The future “Lady Day” first heard the music of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith on a Victrola at Alice Dean’s, the Baltimore brothel where she ran errands and scrubbed floors as a young girl.

In 1927, Billie moved to New York and became a prostitute herself for a span of three years. Inspired by the love of singing, she talked the manager of an obscure Harlem nightclub into letting her sing a few tunes with the house band. She made $57 dollars that night in tips. After being discovered by John Hammond, Eleanora Fagan assumed the stage name of Billie Holiday after her favorite film star Billie Dove, and the name stuck. In 193 3, Hammond organized her first recording session with Benny Goodman. Although these recordings were not all that successful, it was the start of her career. Two years later she was teamed with a pickup band led by a pianist named Teddy Wilson and the combination clicked. During 1935-42 she would make some of the finest recordings of her career as word was spreading about “Lady Day”. Holiday’s style soon became a mix of Louis Armstrong’s swing and Bessie Smith’s sound; the result was her own fresh approach.

In 1937, Billie recorded with Lester Young and Buck Clayton for a short time and then joined Count Basie’s orchestra but ended up recording only three songs with the band due to members of the band signed to different recording labels. Count Basie soon let Billie go for being too independent and temperamental. She then proceeded to work with Artie Shaw’s Orchestra for a short time in 1938 but the same problem existed with differing recording labels (only one song was recorded). She was also exposed to racism while working with Artie Shaw, not only during a Southern tour but in New York too.

In 1939, Billie became a star attraction at the Cafe Society. This is where she debuted such songs as “Strange Fruit” and “God Bless the Children”. “Strange Fruit” was a song with a strong anti-racism theme, which became a main theme in Billie’s music to remind her of all the racism she faced as a performer. White gardenias began to show up in her hair on stage. This became the trademark of “Lady Day”. In 1941, Billie married Johnnie Monroe and began using opium consistently. This marriage did not last long as she soon got a divorce and married Joe Guy, a trumpeter. Billie then became a heroin addict, but despite the addiction she kept performing and making up to $1000/week.

In 1946, she appeared in the movie “New Orleans”. Although outraged about having to stoop to playing a maid in the movie, Billie got to fulfill one of her dreams as she performed with Louis Armstrong one of her early idols. Billie was arrested in 1947 for a drug charge. In 1951, Billie got a second divorce and remarried again, this time to Louis McKay who ended up to be abusive just like her other two husbands.

Holiday’s story from 1950 on is a gradual downhill slide. In 1954, Billie set out to tour Europe but in less than two years she was arrested again for yet another drug charge. This time she entered a drug rehabilitation clinic but the treatment would not last long. Her unhappy relationships distracted her, the narcotics use and excessive drinking continued and by 1956 she was way past her prime. Billie Holiday, at the age of 44, died on July 17, 1959 most likely of a heroin overdose. In a sad finale, she was arrested on her deathbed for possession of narcotics. Despite a lack of technical training, Holiday’s unique diction, inimitable phrasing, and emotional intensity made her the outstanding jazz singer of her day.

The first song I will describe is God Bless the Child , #8 off of Billie Holiday s Greatest Hits. It begins and ends with soft chorus by a choir followed by a poignant flute melody. As Billie begins singing, the background music involves soft background music involving a piano and cello. At certain points throughout the song, the choir softly hums behind Holiday. The harmony, rhythm, and tempo is very simple, but effective in conveying a melancholy, depressed mood. Although the instrumental part of the song isn t very dynamic, Billie s voice shows its subtle erratic shifts in range. The story behind the song is that Holiday had been giving her mother money for a restaurant she wanted to open. One day in 1941 Holiday showed up at the restaurant and requested some cash from her mother. She was refused and harshly responded God bless the child that s got his own! . She stormed out and ran into Greenwich Village to piano player Arthur Herzog.

The second song I chose to describe was Strange Fruit , #11 off Billie Holiday: the billie holiday song book. The instruments in this song include a trumpet, a piano, guitar, bass, and drums. There is about a 20 second introduction with an active trumpet at the forefront. Holiday s voice then engages itself in its usual wonderful combination of husky, hearty, and low but Billie especially shows off her vocal talents in such places when she will suddenly reach a high note and come back down to a medium range. The entire song is fairly soft with a slow moving tempo, with a simple melody and harmony, except for the sharp outbursts of the trumpet.



O Meally, Robert G. Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday. New York,

New York: Da Capo Publishing, 2000.

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