Lady Day

My long lost dad was a pub singer of some repute in around the environs of SE5, SE15 and SE17. One of the songs that he regularly performed, and one that I love to this day is called ‘All of Me.’

Over the years I have heard various versions by various singers, but the one that stands out above all the others is by Billie Holiday.

Her voice at the time of her 1941 recording is rich, fruity and full of life. That same voice by the time of her death in 1959 was cracked and brittle but in truth, still had something about it. The years of severe drug and drink abuse that contributed to the dramatic change, had taken its toll.

Which was hardly surprising when you consider the journey she had been on, was one of two life times and it is that, which I will have a look at today.

Eleanora Fagan as she was christened was born in Philadelphia on April 7th 1915 into what can only be described as a troubled family life. Her young mother Sadie and father Clarence were not married at the time of her arrival. Clarence was soon off after the birth and then little Eleanora was farmed out to Sadie’s sister Eva to be cared for.

She grew up in Baltimore being shuffled from one pair of hands to another. She rarely attended school and dropped out altogether by the age of 11 to work in her mother’s restaurant and grill full time. She was then the victim of an attempted rape around this time.

By 12 she was working out of a brothel running errands and also worked as a cleaner and it was whilst working at that in neighbourhood homes, that she heard the records made by the likes of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.

Sadie then moved to Harlem and began work as a prostitute. Not long after young Eleanora had joined her and she too took up the oldest profession aged just 14. The brothel was raided soon after her arrival however and they both ended up serving time in prison.

Once out, the now teenage Eleanora began singing in nightclubs in Harlem, working under the name of Billie Holiday.  The name came from an amalgamation of Billie Dove, an actress she was fond of and her fathers surname Halliday, which was later changed to Holiday.

Soon, young Billie was gaining attention and her reputation grew quickly, as did the amount of singing work she took on.
Music producer John Hammond discovered her when she was 18, and her recorded her early work. A song from those sessions ‘Riffin’ The Scotch’ sold well and she signed to the Brunswick label.

She then worked with Saxophonist Lester Young around 1934 and it was he who gave her the nickname ‘Lady Day’ and she in turn called him ‘Prez.’

Despite selling well at Brunswick, she realised had signed a bad recording deal, denying her then the wealth she hoped for.

She toured with Count Basie and worked with clarinettist Artie Shaw, becoming the first black female singer to work in an all white band. Racial tensions were exploding wherever they appeared however, and though Shaw did what he could to support her, she was known to fight her own battles when the need arise.

They parted in 1938, when a hotel guest complained about using the same passenger lift as her during their stay.  As a result she was asked to ride in the luggage elevator. This was the final straw for her and she quit the line up.

She then discovered the song ‘Strange Fruit’ in 1939. The lyrics depict a lynching, and were written by Jewish schoolteacher Abel Meeropol under the name of Lewis Allan. She recorded it for Commodore Records at first then later for Verve. Though a controversial subject matter, it went on to became her biggest selling hit record, though having the song ‘Fine and Mellow’ on the B-side certainly helped it sell.

Her star was in the ascendancy and her next song ‘God Bless The Child’ went on to sell over a million copies.

However her developing drug habit was draining her substantial earnings dry, with her then lover Joe Guy keeping the narcotic supply going her way.

Her earnings over the previous three years had topped $250,00 and she was proving very popular in the music polls.  However she was arrested on narcotics charges. Convicted, she spent time in a prison camp in West Virginia.

As a result, she lost her cabaret card, meaning she could no longer work where liquor was served, which in effect ruled out jazz clubs. Upon her release she found work in theatres and concert halls instead. In 1948, she sold out The Carnegie Hall with all the nearly 3,000 tickets sold in advance.

After being arrested again in 1949, it became obvious the law was out to make an example of Holiday. Money was tight now, as she was on flat fees instead of royalties due to continuing bad recording contracts. This only changed once she signed for Decca.

By then her years of hard living, heavy drinking, drugs and poor choice in men resulted in her health and her voice deteriorating.

Ever the trouper though, she went on to tour Europe where she was afforded a very warm welcome. She also continued to record and her work for the Verve label are as popular as her earlier records for Columbia, Commodore and Decca.

Songs forever identified with her include ‘I Loves You Porgy’ ‘Lady Sings the Blues’ ‘Too Marvellous for Words’ ‘Willow Weep for Me’ ‘I Thought About You’ ‘Trav’lin’ Light’ ‘Good Morning Heartache’ ‘I Love My Man’ ‘Don’t Explain’ ‘Body and Soul’ and ‘My Man’.’

In early 1959, she was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. She had lost a stone and half in weight in very little time, but refused to go to hospital. Lester Young had died in the March of 1959 and Billie wanted to sing at his funeral. His wife’s family however declined the offer.

His death it is said weakened Holiday further. Finally hospitalised in May 1959, she was arrested on further drugs charges, as she lay dying.

She finally died of heart failure in the Metropolitan Hospital New York, persecuted to the end and with less that $1,000 dollars to her name.

Frank Sinatra said  ‘with few exceptions, every major pop singer in the US 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 twenty years.’

Now that is some legacy.

The Mumper of SE5