photo credits:Fashion Bomb
Billie Holiday on YouTube
There isn’t another singer, alive or dead, who moves me as much as Lady Day, Billie Holiday. I have been a fan since, well, probably forever. The first time I heard that voice, that soul, that pain, that life, in song, I was hooked. And so, while today we’ll celebrate Carlos’ birthday, we are also celebrating #BillieAt100, because this is her 100th birthday.
She was born Eleanora Fagan, and grew up in Baltimore in the 1920s. As a teenager, she would sing-along with Bessie Smith or Louis Armstrong records in the neighborhood after-hours jazz clubs. When Eleanora’s mother, Sadie, moved to New York in search of a better job, Billie soon followed, and made her debut in nightclubs in Harlem, changing her name to Billie Holiday.
Billie had no training; she couldn’t even read music. But man what she could do with a song. She worked all the clubs in Harlem, sometimes signing with the accompaniment of the house piano player or working as part of a group of performers.
At just 18, Billie was spotted by John Hammond and recorded her first record as part of a studio group led by Benny Goodman. In 1935, at age 20, Billie’s career rocketed when she recorded four sides that went on to become hits, including “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Miss Brown to You,” and landed her a recording contract of her own.
Billie began working with Lester Young in 1936 — he nicknamed her Lady Day — and she then went on to work with Count Basie in 1937 and then Artie Shaw in 1938, where she became one of the very first black women to work with a white orchestra.
In the 1930s, while recording for Columbia Records, Billie heard the poem “Strange Fruit,” an emotional piece about the lynching of a black man. Though Columbia would not allow her to record the piece due to subject matter, Holiday went on to record the song with an alternate label, Commodore, and “Strange Fruit” became one of her classics.
In the 1950s Billie recorded about 100 new songs for Verve Records, her voice more rugged and vulnerable, but still so powerful. Despite her lack of technical training, Billie’s unique diction, phrasing and intensity made her the outstanding jazz singer of her day.
“Singing songs like the ‘The Man I Love’ or ‘Porgy’ is no more work than sitting down and eating Chinese roast duck, and I love roast duck. I’ve lived songs like that.” — Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday died far too young and far too soon, in 1959 at the age of 44. True, her life was filled with bad men, bad choices, drugs, drug arrests, and heartbreak, but none of that matters when you just listen to her sing … like this …