Holiday began singing during her early years in Baltimore, Maryland, where she was brought up until moving to New York in 1929. Inaccuracies, myth and exaggeration clouded the picture of her formative years. Not until Stuart Nicholson's immaculately researched book appeared in 1995 was a detailed and reliable account of these years available. Nicholson's research revealed that some of the statements made by the singer in her 1956 autobiography, Lady Sings The Blues, were true, despite having been dismissed as exaggeration by other writers. Holiday's teenage parents, Sadie Harris (aka Fagan) and probable father, guitarist Clarence Holiday, never actually lived together and Billie spent much of her childhood with relatives and friends. One result of this was a period in care early in 1925. Holiday quickly learned how to survive extreme poverty, race prejudice and the injustice of black ghetto life. Deserted by Clarence, Sadie took herself and her daughter to New York and a life of continuing poverty, degradation and - amazingly - opportunity.
She had already survived rape at age 11 and a further period in care which followed this attack. In New York she endured a brief stint as a prostitute for which she (and her mother) were arrested in 1929. For this she served time on Ryker's Island. Despite these traumatic times, a lack of formal education and music training, her singing developed and she began to appear at New York clubs and speakeasies such as Pods' and Jerry's Log Cabin, the Yeah Man, the Hot-Cha, Alhambra Grill, Dickie Wells' place and the Covan, where singer Monette Moore appeared. She was heard by John Hammond Jnr. when she deputized for Moore who was herself standing in for Ethel Waters on Broadway. Hammond's account of her singing appeared in the press as far away as London and he was also instrumental in setting up a recording date. In the course of three sessions during November and December 1933, two songs were recorded with Benny Goodman in charge of a nine-man studio group most of whom were strangers to the already nervous Holiday. 'Your Mother's Son-in-Law' was the first record she made; 'Riffin' The Scotch', a lightweight novelty concoction, was the second. Neither was wholly successful as a showcase for her - nor, in truth, designed to be - because her role in the proceedings presented Holiday as band vocalist in a setting which stressed the instrumental prowess of Goodman, trombonist Jack Teagarden and other soloists.
Nevertheless, even at this early stage in her career, several of the distinctive characteristics of her highly individual vocal style were already in place and can be heard in the film Symphony In Black, made with Duke Ellington and released in 1935. Holiday continued her round of club dates and, late in 1934, her career was given a boost when she appeared at the Apollo Theatre, Harlem's most famous and, for up-and-coming artists, formidable entertainment centre. Holiday, then just 20 years old, appeared with pianist Bobbie Henderson and her notices were, at best, mildly critical. Clearly, her relaxed, seemingly lazy, behind-the-beat style did not appeal to the Apollo's often vociferous patrons. Nevertheless, when the entire show was held over for a second week, at which time she appeared with Ralph Cooper's orchestra, her notices improved thanks to her capacity to adapt. By this time, Holiday had settled on the spelling of her name (earlier, her given name, Eleanora, was also subject to variation).
In mid-1935, the singer returned to the recording studio for a session organized by Hammond and directed by Teddy Wilson. Although Wilson would later declare that he never liked her singing style, it is a measure of his consummate professionalism that in him she found the sympathetic partner she needed to reveal the full range of her talents. The four songs picked for this groundbreaking date were above average and the easygoing jam-session atmosphere suited Holiday admirably. She responded to Wilson's masterly accompaniments and solo playing, and to the brilliance of Goodman, Roy Eldridge and Ben Webster. Here was a rising star who could invest ordinary popular songs with the emotional kick of a first-rate blues or ballad composition. Between 1937 and 1938 Holiday sang with the band of Count Basie, where she had an affair with married guitarist Freddie Green. She quit, or more probably was fired, in February of 1938 and, reservations about the touring life notwithstanding, joined Artie Shaw almost at once and was on the road again, this time with a white band. She ran into trouble with racists, especially in southern states, and before the end of the year had left Shaw. It was to be her final appearance as a band member; from now on she would be presented as a solo artist. She continued to make records and it seems likely that closest to her heart were those made in association with Wilson, trumpeter Buck Clayton and Lester Young. The inspirational partnership of Holiday and Young led to some of the finest vocal interpretations of her life. Undeniably, these recordings and others made between 1935 and 1942 are among the finest moments in jazz. Early in 1939, Holiday's career took a giant step upwards. Again Hammond proffered a helping hand, as did nightclub owner Barney Josephson. She opened at Café Society with Frankie Newton's band that January, scored at once with the multi-racial audience and had her first taste of stardom at the Café whose slogan read 'The wrong place for the right people'. This engagement and recordings made for Milt Gabler's Commodore label - which included the grimly dramatic 'Strange Fruit' - was a turning point in her career. Unfortunately, during the 40s she responded positively if unwisely to some of the changes in the musical and social climate. Already an eager drinker, smoker of tobacco and marijuana, eater, dresser and shopper, and with a sexual appetite described as 'healthy-plus', she embraced the hard-drug culture of the 40s as to the manner born. She was having troublesome love affairs, nothing new to her, but on 25 August 1941 married Jimmy Monroe. It was a union that did nothing to ease her situation, being an on-off affair which lasted until their divorce in 1945. Nobody now can say when exactly, and by whom, but Holiday was turned on to opium and then heroin. At first the addiction hardly affected her singing, although her behaviour grew increasingly unpredictable, and she gained a reputation for unreliability. At last she was earning real money, as much as $1,000 weekly, it was reported, and about half that sum went to pay for her 'habit'. Nevertheless, she now had the public recognition she craved. In the first Esquire magazine poll (1943) the critics voted her Best Vocalist, with Mildred Bailey and Ella Fitzgerald in second and third places respectively. In spite of drug problems, one accompanist spoke years later of her 'phenomenal musicianship.'
At this stage of her life Holiday experienced regular bouts of depression, pain and ill-health, and in 1947 was sentenced to a term in the Federal Reformatory, West Virginia, her arraignment coming, surprisingly, at the behest of her manager, Joe Glaser. From the 50s on, Billie Holiday and trouble seemed often inseparable. As a consequence of her criminal record on drugs, her cabaret card was withdrawn by the New York Police Department. This prevented her appearance at any venue where liquor was on sale, and effectively ruled out New York nightclubs. A side-effect of this was a diminution of her out-of-town earning capacity. In 1949 she had been arrested for possession and was again, though not charged, in 1956. She was still making good money but two years on drink and drugs crucially influenced her vocal control. At the end of May 1958 she was taken to hospital suffering from heart and liver disease. Harried still by the police, and placed under arrest in the hospital, she was charged with possession and placed under police guard - the final cruelty the system could inflict upon her. Thus the greatest of jazz singers died in humiliating circumstances at 3.10 am on 17 July 1959. Even at the end squabbles had begun between a lawyer, virtually self-appointed, and her second husband, Louis McKay, whom she had married on 28 March 1957. She did not live to rejoice in the flood of books, biographical features, critical studies, magazine essays, album booklets, discographies, reference-book entries, chapters in innumerable jazz volumes, films and television documentaries which far exceed any form of recognition she experienced in her lifetime.
In defiance of her limited vocal range, Holiday's use of tonal variation and vibrato, her skill at jazz phrasing, and her unique approach to the lyrics of popular songs, were but some of the elements in the work of a truly original artist. Her clear diction, methods of manipulating pitch, improvising on a theme, the variety of emotional moods ranging from the joyously optimistic, flirtatious even, to the tough, defiant, proud, disillusioned and buoyantly barrelhouse, were not plucked out of the air, acquired without practice. Holiday paid her dues in a demanding milieu. That she survived at all is incredible; that she should become the greatest jazz singer there has ever been - virtually without predecessor or successor - borders on the miraculous. Today she is revered beyond her wildest imaginings in places which, in her lifetime, greeted her with painfully closed doors. Sadly, she would not have been surprised. As she wrote in her autobiography: 'There's no damn business like show business. You had to smile to keep from throwing up'.
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