Billie Holiday – Jazz’s First Diva

Billie Holiday is generally regarded by knowledgeable jazz enthusiasts to be the greatest female singer in jazz, although a novice listener may at first find this hard to understand. Holiday had a small voice, did not belt out songs the way the blues queens before her had, lacked the musicality of Ella Fitzgerald, and, unlike Ella, never scatted in her singing. Recordings from late in her career reveal a thin, almost toneless voice with a deceptively conversational style. Yet, her innovative way with behind-the-beat phrasing was ahead of its time – and in step with the laconic tenor sax of Lester Young. And it was Young – known within jazz circles as “The Prez” – who gave her the name, “Lady Day,” which Billie held onto throughout her career.

Billie Holiday’s origins are shrouded in the mists of legend, no little assisted by her ghosted autobiography, Lady Sings The Blues. She was born Eleanora – but the rest of her original name is in dispute. Some say she was Eleanora Fagan Gough. Others say Eleanora Holiday, and yet others Eleanora Fagan. Even her birthplace is in doubt. Most biographers give it as Baltimore, but one claims it was Philadelphia.   And some sources state that she was born April 7, 1915, others give the date as April 17, 1915, and at least one suggests she might have been born as early as 1912.

The Billie Holiday Estate states that “Billie Holiday’s grandfather was one of 17 children of a black Virginia slave and a white Irish plantation owner. Her mother was 13 when she was born.” Her mother was Sadie Fagan, her father Clarence Holiday.   Clarence later played banjo and guitar with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, but he abandoned his daughter, never marrying her mother. The name “Billie” was borrowed from the silent screen star, Billie Dove – but accounts vary over whether this was Holiday’s choice or her mother’s.

The child of a child, Holiday had an abusive childhood, was raped at 10, and subsequently worked in brothels as both a domestic and as a prostitute. It was in one that she first heard records of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, which had a profound influence on her.

Her singing career began in late 1932, in a small New York City club called Covan’s, in Harlem on West 132nd St, accompanied by a pianist named Dot Hill.   John Hammond – the man who “discovered” Benny Goodman and who also built Columbia Records into a formidable force in jazz, late in his career giving Bob Dylan a boost at that label as well – showed up at Covan’s expecting to see the usual singer, Monette Moore. He was struck by what he heard from Holiday instead, later saying, “The way she sang around a melody, her uncanny harmonic sense and her sense of lyric content were almost unbelievable in a girl of 17.”  

Hammond arranged for Holiday’s first recording sessions with Columbia. A demo was made with Dot Hill, but it disappeared without a trace, no one even remembering what tune she sang. On November 27, 1933, Holiday made her first commercially-released recording with a small pick-up band assembled by Hammond and led by Benny Goodman.   Subsequently she recorded with Teddy Wilson (then Goodman’s pianist), Buck Clayton and Lester Young. She toured with the Count Basie Orchestra in 1937 and with Artie Shaw’s band in 1938. The latter tour, through the south, with a white band, caused her great indignity and pain, despite the support of Shaw and his band. Many of the venues where they played would not allow Holiday – or any black person – in the front door, nor would many of the hotels where the band stayed accept her.

Her recording career has been categorized as taking place in four phases. In the first, during the 1930s, she was featured as a vocalist with various name orchestras. In the second, which began around 1940, with “Lover Man,” she was placed in non-jazz contexts, with string orchestras. During this time she was recording for Decca. Her third phase was one in which she revived early material, again on Columbia, recreating some of her most successful songs from her first period. The fourth were her waning years, recorded by Norman Granz for Clef and Verve. She died on July 17, 1959, when she was only 44.   [Scandal followed her to her death bed; her biographer smuggled cocaine into the hospital where she was dying.]

Her early LPs – themselves collections of earlier 78 rpm singles – are now collector’s items.   Her two Commodore 10-inch LPs, issued in 1950, Billie Holiday, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 (FL-20005 and FL-20006), are worth from $125 to $250 each, depending in their condition. Other particularly valuable LPs from the early 1950s are the 10-inch Decca Lover Man (DL-5345) ($100 to $200) from 1951, and the Mercury Billie Holiday Sings (MGC-118), also a 10-inch LP, from 1952 ($125 to $250).   Among the other memorabilia associated with Holiday are two-by-three-foot wall posters based on both photos and artistic representations. She was a strikingly attractive woman, who often wore a white gardenia in her hair – an image to be found in a number of her photos, and album covers.

In recent years Holiday has undergone a revival with the music-buying audience, and she is well represented on CD, with recordings from all periods in her career selling in larger numbers than any time during her life, a sad irony. (29638 bytes)