In the American imagination, the high mournful sound of Billie Holiday’s voice is like an audio synonym for the word melancholy. You can’t hear it without being hurtled back to thoughts of love and loss, memories of painful pleasures whose trials made you stronger, more resilient. More human.
Precisely 100 years after her birth, Lady Day still has as powerful an impact on our emotional mindscape as when she first stunned listeners with an elegy to lynching called Strange Fruit, which she recorded in April 1939, just after turning 24. She said she could bring such powerful emotion to the song because it reminded her of her father, musician Clarence Holiday, who died after being denied treatment for a lung disorder.
“It reminds me of how Pop died, but I have to keep singing it, not only because people ask for it, but because 20 years after Pop died the things that killed him are still happening in the South,” she said in her autobiography, Lady Sings The Blues.
There are singers who bring endless supplies of emotion and drama to the table, like Abbey Lincoln and Cassandra Wilson. Or technical skill, like Ella Fitzgerald and Whitney Houston. And even whimsy, like Dinah Washington and Erykah Badu. But nobody brings pain like Billie.
And it’s a pain she came by naturally, authentically. She lived it. She knew it. She never had to fake.
Born in Philadelphia as Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915, and partly raised in Baltimore, Holiday as a child was often left with relatives by her single mother while she chased odd jobs. She spent some time in reform school. When she was 11, her mother came upon a neighbor attempting to rape her; he wound up in jail, with Holiday for a time placed in protective custody. By the time Billie was 13, she and her mother were both prostitutes working at a brothel in Harlem—Billie earning $5 a client. When the house was raided, the girl and her mother were sent to prison.
By the time she was 17, her voice had been discovered. A great career was born. She was given the nickname “Lady Day” by the immensely talented saxophonist Lester Young, a close friend she labeled “Prez.” Young acknowledged that when the two of them performed together, it was hard to tell the difference between his horn and her voice, that’s how inspiring was their chemistry.
Holiday was a star by the time she began performing with Count Basie’s band, often compared to her chief rival Ella Fitzgerald, with whom she would later become friends. She moved from Basie’s band to Artie Shaw’s, one of the first Black women to work with a white orchestra. When they toured the country, particularly in the South, Holiday would grow incensed by the racism she encountered. In Louisville, when a man called her a “nigger wench” and requested she sing another song, Billie lost her temper and had to be escorted off the stage.
The backstory to one of her most enduring songs, God Bless The Child, is that she got into an argument with her mother, who refused to pay back any of the large amounts of cash Billie had given her. When she stormed out, Holiday angrily shouted, “God bless the child that’s got his own!” She later teamed with pianist Arthur Herzog to turn it into a classic, her signature. It was third on the Billboard chart for songs of the year in 1941, selling more than a million records.
This is what Frank Sinatra told Ebony in 1958 about Holiday:
“With few exceptions, every major pop singer in the U.S. during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius. It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me. Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last 20 years.”
When her addiction to heroin came hard, it haunted her for the rest of her life. After she was arrested in 1947 for drug possession in her New York City apartment, her cabaret card was revoked, which banned her from working at any establishment that sold alcohol.
This is what Gilbert Millstein of The New York Times wrote about her final moments. “The likelihood exists that among the last thoughts of this cynical, sentimental, profane, generous and greatly talented woman of 44 was the belief that she was to be arraigned the following morning. She would have been, eventually, although possibly not that quickly. In any case, she removed herself finally from the jurisdiction of any court here below.”
Yes, she was only 44 when she died, her once radiant beauty withered and hardened by the abuses that life threw at her and that she inflicted on herself.
But her voice remains a presence in all of our lives, still able to transport us to the dark, hidden corners of our souls—the places where Billie would likely be hanging out.