April 7, 1915 – This is The Sad Song Of Lady Day. Eleanora Fagan cut school so often she was sent to live at a home for “colored girls”, the House Of The Good Shepherd, run by the Little Sisters Of The Poor. She was returned to her mother a year later, but in 1926, Eleanora was raped by a neighbor & sent back to Good Shepherd, but the nuns refused to keep her for long. She was just 11 years old.
Little Eleanora found work at a bordello as a house cleaner. The madam let her listen to records by Louis Armstrong & Bessie Smith. Eleanora began to express her feelings through music & she began singing at various storefront churches.
As a young teenager, Eleanora moved to NYC with her mother, to pursue a singing career, instead she found work as a prostitute in Harlem. But, she embraced music as her way out.
Eleanora reinvented herself as Billie Holiday. She began to get small gigs at out of the way clubs. Holiday slowly gained popularity with her fellow musicians. She toured for several years with TheCount Basie Orchestra. In 1938, Holiday was offered her first steady job at Café Society in Greenwich Village, the first racially integrated night club in the USA. She earned $75 a week, a lot of money at the time. She went on to be a featured vocalist at cool clubs all over the country, acquiring the nickname “Lady Day” along the way. She had a distinctive singing voice, which she used like a musical instrument, transforming jazz singing. Holiday:
“I don’t think I’m singing; I feel like I’m playing a horn.”
Holiday had many love affairs with both men & women, but she was known as a lesbian among many of her peers in the jazz world, where she acquired the moniker “Mister Holiday” because she was seldom seen in the company of gentlemen. Holiday:
“Sure, I’ve been to bed with women… but I was always the man.”
Who else can you think of who had an affair with both Orson Welles & Tallulah Bankhead?
By the late 1930s, Holiday had married small-time drug dealer Jimmy Monroe. He introduced her to opium & heroin. In 1947, she spent a year in prison for drug possession. After her release, Holiday had difficulty finding work & she had a string of relationships with maniacal men & a decline into dependence on drugs, a roughening up of her voice & damage to her body.
On July,10 1959, Holiday took her final bow. She died of cirrhosis of the liver in a NYC hospital room. In a characteristically cruel turn, she had been arrested on her deathbed for possession of drugs, & spent her final days under police guard.
Billie Holiday was unlucky in life, unlucky in love & she died from drink & drugs at just 44 years old.
The life & legend of Billie Holiday seem to portray her as problematic, profane & pushy woman & a victim. She was, after all, a junkie & an alcoholic. She had sex with a great many men & many women. But, I like to think that Holiday as someone that tried to transcended the life handed to her, a determined woman with a big appetite for living who lived on her terms in the man’s world of Jazz. Holiday was never able to actually capitalize on her amazing talent & to live a life as a music superstar. She couldn’t break that pattern of abuse from others or herself, but that fed her genius. Her brand of self-destruction was a plea for the love that her bad behavior pushed away. But that voice, that perfectly imperfect voice, will always have that love & will always break my heart. I can work myself into a stupor of sublime melancholy by sipping whiskey & gazing out the window at a rainy afternoon while listening to a Billie Holiday album.
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Billie Holiday.