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Portrait Highlight - Billie Holiday - American jazz and swing singer

Billie Holiday (1915 – 1959) [Eleanora Fagan] was an American jazz and swing music singer. Nicknamed "Lady Day" by her friend and music partner Lester Young, Holiday had an innovative influence on jazz music and pop singing. Her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo. She was known for her vocal delivery and improvisational skills.

After an extremely difficult and turbulent childhood, the teenage Holiday began singing in nightclubs in Harlem. She took her professional pseudonym from Billie Dove, an actress she admired, and jazz banjo player and guitarist, Clarence Halliday, her probable father. From the outset she spelled her last name Halliday, but later changed it to Holiday to match her father's performing name. At the age of 17 Holiday replaced the singer Monette Moore at the club Covan's where producer John Hammond first heard her, in early 1933. He arranged for Holiday to make her recording debut at the age of 18, with Benny Goodman. She recorded two songs: 'Your Mother's Son-in-Law' and 'Riffin' the Scotch', the latter being her first hit when it sold 5,000 copies. Hammond was impressed by Holiday's singing style and said of her, "Her singing almost changed my music tastes and my musical life, because she was the first girl singer I'd come across who actually sang like an improvising jazz genius." Hammond compared Holiday favorably to Armstrong and said she had a good sense of lyric content at her young age.

In 1935 she signed a recording contract with Brunswick to record pop tunes with pianist Teddy Wilson in the swing style for the growing jukebox trade. They were allowed to improvise the material and Holiday's improvisation of melody to fit the emotion was revolutionary. Their first collaboration included 'What a Little Moonlight Can Do' which became a jazz standard and has been deemed her "claim to fame".

In late 1937, Holiday had a brief stint as a big-band vocalist with Count Basie. They performed many one-nighters in clubs, moving from city to city with little stability and the travelling conditions were often poor. However, Holiday was able to choose the songs she sang and have a hand in the arrangements, and was able to focus on developing her persona of a woman unlucky in love. Her tunes included 'I Must Have That Man', 'Travelin' All Alone', 'I Can't Get Started', and 'Summertime'.

But by February 1938, Holiday was no longer singing for Basie. Various reasons have been given for her firing. Some say she was unprofessional, "temperamental and unreliable". She complained of low pay and poor working conditions and may have refused to sing the songs requested of her or change her style. A month after being fired from the Count Basie Band Holiday was hired by Artie Shaw. This association placed her among the first black women to work with a white orchestra which was a highly unusual arrangement at the time. This was also the first time a black female singer employed full-time toured the segregated U.S. South with a white bandleader. There are no surviving live recordings of Holiday with Shaw's band. Because she was under contract to a different record label and possibly because of her race, Holiday was able to make only one record with Shaw, 'Any Old Time'.

In the late 1930s she was introduced to 'Strange Fruit', a song based on a poem about lynching written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx. She performed it at the club in 1939, with some trepidation, fearing possible retaliation. She later said that the imagery of the song reminded her of her father's death (Clarence Halliday was denied medical treatment for a fatal lung disorder because of racial prejudice) and that this played a role in her resistance to performing it. In her autobiography she wrote, "It reminds me of how Pop died, but I have to keep singing it, not only because people ask for it, but because twenty years after Pop died the things that killed him are still happening in the South". The song remained in her repertoire for 20 years.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Holiday had mainstream success and by 1947 was at her commercial peak having made $250,000 in the three previous years. However, she was beset with legal troubles and drug abuse. On May 16, 1947, Holiday was arrested for possession of narcotics in her New York apartment. On May 27 she was in court. "It was called 'The United States of America versus Billie Holiday'. And that's just the way it felt," she recalled. Dehydrated and unable to hold down food, she pleaded guilty and asked to be sent to the hospital, but was sentenced to Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia. Not long after her release she performed at a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall.

The drug possession conviction caused her to lose her New York City Cabaret Card, preventing her working anywhere that sold alcohol; thereafter, she performed in concert venues and theaters. The loss of her cabaret card reduced Holiday's earnings. She had not received proper record royalties until she joined Decca, so her main revenue was club concerts. The problem worsened when Holiday's records went out of print in the 1950s. She seldom received royalties in her later years. In 1958, she received a royalty of only $11.

By the 1950s, Holiday's drug abuse, drinking, and relationships with abusive men caused her health to deteriorate. She appeared on the ABC reality series The Comeback Story to discuss attempts to overcome her misfortunes. Her later recordings showed the effects of declining health on her voice, as it grew coarse and no longer projected its former vibrancy.

Her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, was ghostwritten by William Dufty and published in 1956. Dufty, a New York Post writer and editor then married to Holiday's close friend Maely Dufty, wrote the book quickly from a series of conversations with the singer in the Duftys' 93rd Street apartment. He also drew on the work of earlier interviewers and intended to let Holiday tell her story in her own way. In his 2015 study, Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth, John Szwed argued that Lady Sings the Blues is a generally accurate account of her life, but that co-writer Dufty was forced to water down or suppress material by the threat of legal action.

In early 1959, Holiday was diagnosed with liver cirrhosis. Although she had initially stopped drinking on her doctor's orders, it was not long before she relapsed. By May she had lost 20 pounds (9.1 kg) and on the 31st of that month Holiday was taken to Metropolitan Hospital in New York for treatment of both liverand heart disease.

Under the order of Harry J. Anslinger, The Federal Bureau of Narcotics had been targeting Holiday since at least 1939. There in the hospital room where she lay dying, she was arrested and handcuffed for drug possession, her hospital room was raided, and she was placed under police guard. She died in July of that year aged just 44. In her final years, she had been progressively swindled out of her earnings, and she died with only $0.70 in the bank.

In 1961 she was voted to the Down Beat Hall Of Fame and soon after Columbia reissued nearly a hundred of her early records. In 1972 Diana Ross' portrayal of Holiday in Lady Sings The Blues was nominated for an Oscar and won a Golden Globe. Holiday would go on to be nominated for 23 posthumous Grammy awards.

In 1985 Baltimore, Maryland erected a statue of Billie Holiday that was completed in 1993 with additional panels of images inspired by her seminal song 'Strange Fruit'.

In 2017 Holiday was inducted into the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame.


Billie Holiday, coloured pencil on paper May 2020

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