61. The Harlem Renaissance Series: Billie Holiday (Lady Sings the Blues)

Posted: December 14, 2009 in African American, Black entertainment, Black History, Black Pride, Culture
Tags: , , ,

Although the Savoy Ballroom on Lenox Avenue was a renowned venue for swing dancing and jazz, immortalized in the popular song “Stompin’ At The Savoy”, the Apollo Theater has been the most lasting physical legacy of the Harlem Renaissance. The Apollo opened its doors on 125th Street on January 26, 1914, in a former burlesque house, and has remained a symbol of African-American culture.

One of the most famous clubs for popular music in the United States, it was the first place where many figures from the Harlem Renaissance found a venue for their talents and a start to their careers. The careers of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan (among many others) were launched at the Apollo.

The next portion of this Harlem Renaissance Series will focus on these talented singers and musicians.  Today’s feature spotlights the legendary Billie Holiday.

Billie Holliday (1915–1959)

Singer, jazz vocalist Billie Holiday, (born Eleanora Fagan) on April 7, 1915, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is perhaps one of the most popular and influential jazz singers of all time.

She was born to her unwed parents.  Her mother, 13-year-old Sadie Fagan, and her father, 15-year-old Clarence Holiday, married when Billie was three.  As a child, she ran errands and scrubbed floors at Alice Dean’s, a “house of ill repute.” That was where she first heard the music of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, her two biggest influences.

She began to sing at Harlem nightclubs when she could not get hired as a dancer. She used the stage name “Billie Holiday” after her father, who played in a band, and Billie Dove, her favorite childhood actress. She sang at the clubs from midnight until three o’clock in the afternoon for 18 months, only getting paid $2 per night.

Billie was finally recognized as a real talent by John Hammond, a famous jazz enthusiast. He then recommended her to Benny Goodman, a clarinet player who worked in the recording business at that time. It was from there that Billie’s career exploded onto the jazz music scene.

Her recording career is divided into 3 periods.  The first is the period in the 1930s, recorded with Columbia, marked by her time with Wilson, Goodman, and Young.  Her music was made for jukeboxes, but she turned them into jazz classics.  Her popularity never matched her artistic success, but she was widely played on Armed Forces Radio during World War II.   From this period came the anti-racism song Strange Fruit, in which she paints a terrifying picture of lynched black bodies hanging from trees.  The lyrics of the song were adapted from a poem by Louis Allen.

The next period is her Decca (record company) years in the Forties, marked by recordings with string orchestra accompaniment.    While the records from this period are impressive, they’re not as “jazzy.”  This period featured Loverman as well as her self-written classics Don’t Explain, and God Bless the Child.  In late 1947, she was arrested on drug charges and spent 18 months in a federal reformatory.

On May 31, 1959, she was taken to Metropolitan Hospital in New York suffering from liver and heart disease. Police officers were stationed at the door to her room. She was arrested for drug possession as she lay dying and her hospital room was raided by authorities.

Holiday remained under police guard at the hospital until she died from cirrhosis of the liver on July 17, 1959. In the final years of her life, she had been progressively swindled out of her earnings, and she died with $0.70 in the bank and $750 (a tabloid fee) on her person.

The 1970’s film Lady Sings the Blues, starring Diana Ross and Billie Dee Williams, was based on the life of Billie Holiday.

  1. Rachel Araya says:

    I love Billie Holiday. I own the billie holiday songbook CD. I know almost all of lyrics to every song on that CD. Unfortunately, I don’t have the melodic voice that God gave Billie. God blessed me with other talents, and I am thankful. However, I still long for a voice like Billie! Truly magical!

    “Lady Sings The Blues” is my favorite movie. You would be shocked if I told you how many times I have seen that movie. I am truly one of her biggest fans. However, I never understood how she was able to sing while on drugs. I know many stars are able to perform while on drugs but it still bewilders me. Why do we lose all the great ones to tragedy?

  2. ANONYMOUS says:



  3. muziclover1 says:

    I love Billie Holliday. I’m sure her struggle was born out of the frustration of being a black performer during her day. The only reason Mary J, Whitney, Beyonce’ and others enjoy the paychecks they enjoy is because of the blood, sweat and tears by the likes of Billie Holliday. The Harlem Renaissance set the stag for black musicians and singers of today.

  4. tamiam says:

    this is a very good article

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