- Category : Entertain-Music-Vocalist-Pop,-Rock,-etc.
- Type : MGE
- Profile : 2/4 - Hermit / Opportunist
- Definition : Split - Small (20,28,32,42)
- Incarnation Cross : RAX Penetration 1
American blues and jazz singer nicknamed "Lady Day,” whose incomparable voice was the essence of jazz.
She was born to two young teenagers, a 13-year-old mother and a 16-year old father, who married when she was three but didn’t stay together. Her mom moved to New York and left Billie in the care of relatives who mistreated her. Her dad, a musician, had left the family early to tour with a jazz band. One account of her obscure early life places her in a Catholic reform school after she reported that she had been raped. In 1929, Billie moved to New York to be with her mom, but once there, her mother left the young teen on her own. Working as a housecleaner in a brothel, Billie turned to prostitution and landed in trouble with the police. After a few months in jail, the 15-year-old child, who had taught herself to sing by listening to Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, started singing in nightclubs in order to earn some money. She auditioned to be a dancer in a Harlem nightclub but was rejected. As she got ready to leave, she began singing, and the impressed club owner signed her on; the customers loved her. In early 1933, an enchanted record producer brought Benny Goodman to a performance. She recorded a demo at Columbia Studios, and on November 27, 1933 she joined Goodman’s group singing “Your Mother’s Son-In-Law.” The song marked her commercial debut.
By 1935, she was making recordings and touring. Though the road was not easy for a black female singer, she achieved international fame with the all-star bands of Teddy Wilson, Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. Her father died on February 23, 1937 while she was on the road, but she didn’t learn of it until a week later. By 1938, she decided to go solo, fed up with the discrimination she encountered while traveling with the Artie Shaw band. While the white musicians could enjoy themselves in segregated restaurants, she was required to stay on the bus. She landed a gig at a popular club that enjoyed a multi-racial audience, and her rendition of “Strange Fruit” about the lynching of blacks became a somewhat controversial hit. In 1941, still with Columbia Records, she recorded “God Bless the Child.” In 1944, she switched to Decca Records, where her recording of “Lover Man” became her third big hit. In 1946, she appeared in her only full-length Hollywood movie, "New Orleans," one of four films she made.
The 1940s were turbulent years. On the one hand, her career was in full bloom: she had hit records to her credit, and she was in demand on the theater and nightclub circuit. On the other hand, her emotional swings, her drinking habit, and her indulgence in first marijuana and then opium were taking their toll. She had married Johnnie Monroe; the marriage didn’t last but, nearly as soon as it was over, she married Joe Guy, a trumpeter, and moved on to heroin. In 1947, she lost money trying to support her orchestra and her new husband, her mother died, and she was arrested for possession of marijuana. She spent nearly a year in jail for her crime.
After her conviction for drugs, it became impossible for her to get cabaret bookings. She continued to record for Decca and in 1954 and 1958 toured in Europe. The Europeans loved her. In the mid-‘50s she signed recording contracts first with Clef, Norgran, and then with Verve. Her 1956 autobiography subtitled “Lady Sings the Blues” brought her additional publicity. That year, she appeared on a CBS television special, “The Sound of Jazz.”
Her addiction to heroin made travesty of her last few years; the endless, hopeless battle with drugs hurt her voice and health. She made two more appearances in Europe but, in May 1959, she collapsed. She was sent to a hospital but, unable to give up heroin, she was arrested for drugs literally while on her death bed. Lady Day's voice was stilled when her heart failed on July 17, 1959 at 3:20 AM in the Metropolitan Hospital, Manhattan, NY. She was 44 years old.
In 1972, the biopic “Lady Sings the Blues” starred Diana Ross as Billie Holiday. Lady Day had never gone out of favor with jazz fans, and the movie, though Hollywood-ized, introduced her talent and tragedy to a whole new generation. With her beautiful soulful voice and her unique style, she carved out a permanent and important place for herself in the history of music. All of her studio recordings have now been reissued on CD by Columbia, Decca and Verve.