Today is the birthdate of one of my favourite female vocal artists, Billie Holiday. Born Eleanora Fagan, she began to use the stage name Billie “Halliday” (later Holiday) when she started singing on the stage in her early teens. She was born to parents Sadie Fagan and Clarence Halliday in Philadelphia in 1915, and suffered what can only be described as a sad, traumatic and abusive childhood. She was moved between people who looked after her as both her mother and her father disappeared and reappeared in her life, and at the age of 9 was put into care. At the age of 11 her mother managed to stop a particularly nasty attack on her by a neighbour, but within a few short years, she was trafficked by her mother to a brothel, where she also worked, to earn money for them to be able to eat.
Billie Holiday was inspired to sing jazz in the clubs in Harlem, New York after hearing records by Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, and others like them. She wanted her voice to “sound like an instrument”, and she was fond of the scat style of singing that Ella Fitzgerald later performed.
Billie Holiday sang with all the big band and jazz greats of the 1930s (Count Basie, Artie Shaw for example) and in the 1940s her career really took off after she recorded “Strange Fruit”, a controversial song from the poem by Abel Meeropol (aka Abel Allan) about the lynching of African-American people in the South.
Her recording career continued through the 1940s and into the 1950s, and she performed all over in clubs and theatres with the great jazz musicians of the time. However, Billie’s personal life continued to be as chaotic and traumatic as it had been in childhood and she endured a series of abusive relationships with several men and her health began to deteriorate as a result of her many coping mechanisms that she adopted along the way.
Her drug and alcohol misuse had a huge affect on her voice, and her later recordings did not draw the same sort of attention that her younger performances did, and by 1956 her singing career was practically over. Billie Holiday was diagnosed with cirrhosis in early 1959 and her health deteriorated rapidly after that. She died in hospital in circumstances that can only be described as farcical, with a police escort “guarding” her after she was arrested in her hospital bed for narcotic possession.
I first discovered Billie Holiday on an old LP that my Mum and Dad had, and listening to her singing led me to discover more about Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong and all those like them. I loved Billie’s voice and as soon as I heard her sing, I was hooked.
I’ve shared a video in her honour, of her singing a song that is close to my heart (if you are a fellow Manchester City fan you will understand why). I would like it to pay tribute to the thousands, MILLIONS of women who have endured the gruelling, abusive life that Billie Holiday led, remembering those who have taken destructive pathways in order to survive it.
Blue Moon 💙