Belfast Telegraph

Lady sings the blues: Martin Chilton reflects on Billie Holiday's musical triumphs and personal hardships on 60th anniversary of her death


American legend: Billie Holiday
American legend: Billie Holiday
American legend: Billie Holiday

By Martin Chilton

When Billie Holiday toured England in 1954, she went shopping in Nottingham ahead of her evening concert at the city's Astoria Ballroom. A family friend called Betty Jones, wife of the esteemed jazz writer Max, was with her when they went into Marks & Spencer. Holiday picked out some pyjamas and went to the counter to pay. The strait-laced sales assistant was shocked to see a 38-year-old black woman haul up her skirt and produce a roll of banknotes from the top of her stocking. "It's safer there," she said, laughing loudly.

Holiday was a true one-off: a wild, outspoken and forceful woman, who also happened to be one of the greatest singers that ever lived. It makes it all the sadder that her final days were so painful and that she died such in such degrading circumstances in the early hours of July 17, 1959, at Harlem's Metropolitan Hospital. She had been under arrest in her hospital bed for the previous five weeks.

She was weak, underweight, bed-ridden and trying to fight off heart and liver failure problems at a time when police found a small tinfoil envelope containing heroin in a different part of the room. It was widely suspected that the drugs had been planted.

She was interrogated by narcotics detectives. Her books, flowers, radio and record player were confiscated. She was finger-printed without her consent. She was only 44 when her heart gave out. The singer who had recorded classics such as God Bless the Child and the civil rights anthem Strange Fruit had only 70 cents in her bank account.

Her lifelong habits persisted, however, and even in hospital she had some ready cash strapped to her leg. She had been herself right to the end, joking with a musician on the eve of her death about writing a new song called Bless Your Bones. She also repeated to friends that she was seriously considering moving to England and buying a house in London.

Before being admitted to hospital she had been living at 26 West 87th Street, where the name on the doorbell was marked Eleanora Fagan, the name she used as a child growing up in a cramped home in Baltimore.

She had been born in Philadelphia on April 7, 1915 to teenagers Sadie Fagan and Clarence Holiday. They separated when she was a young girl.

Her childhood was often brutal. She was sexually abused by a neighbour and had a tough time at the Catholic reformatory in Baltimore (she was forced to spend a night in a locked room with a child's corpse in a coffin as a penalty for misbehaving) and went on to earn a living in a series of menial jobs. She also claimed to have worked as a prostitute in a brothel in Baltimore. "I was turning tricks as a call girl, but I decided I wasn't going to be anybody's maid," she said in her own - often unreliable - memoir, Lady Sings the Blues.

In 1929, Sadie and her daughter moved to New York. Sadie worked as a maid and her teenage child eked out a living scrubbing floors. Billie Holiday got her first break when she asked for work as a dancer at Jerry Preston's Log Cabin. Although she failed the audition, the pianist, taking pity on her, asked if she could sing.

The girl who had grown up adoring the music of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong delivered a fine version of Body and Soul and was immediately hired for $2 a night.

The young singer was profane, promiscuous, alcoholic, unpredictable and fearless. After signing with Louis Armstrong's manager Joe Glaser, she resisted attempts to soften her singing style. "Look you son-of-a-bitch," she told Glaser, "I'm going to sing my way."

She was no stranger to violence. After being hired for a run at the Grand Terrace in Chicago in June 1936, for $75 a week, she was told by club owner Ed Fox that he didn't like her style of singing. He screamed at her after a show, "Why should I pay you $250 a week to stink my goddamn show up? Everybody says you sing too slow. Get out!" She began hurling office furniture at him, before walking out.

Holiday said she had always wanted her voice to sound like a musical instrument and was pleased when trumpeter Miles Davis praised her style by saying, "Billie Holiday doesn't need any real horns, she sounds like one anyway". Some of her recordings with Teddy Wilson in the 1930s - including What a Little Moonlight Can Do and Miss Brown to You - remain joyful masterpieces.

She is responsible for some of the best jazz song recordings ever made. It says something about the brilliance she brought to so many songs that even experts are divided about her best work. Motown legend Berry Gordy believes it is God Bless the Child, a recording he said, "spoke to me and in some ways changed my thought about life". For poet Philip Larkin, it was her version of These Foolish Things.

For many, it is Strange Fruit, a song that portrays a lynching and the horrors of racism, and which became an anthem of the early civil rights movement. She started singing Strange Fruit in 1939 as the final song of her Cafe Society shows, with no encores. Her recording company, Columbia Records, were not willing to release a song about lynching but, fortunately, gave their permission for Holiday to record it for her friend Milt Gabler at Commodore. The recording, made in April 1939, is considered a landmark protest song.

Holiday would never have been out of the news in the modern era and this black female singer stood up for herself in a way that was unprecedented in mid-20th-century America. When she was performing at the 55 West 52nd Street Yacht Club, a naval officer called her a "n*****". He soon left, after she smashed the top from a beer bottle and threatened him with it.

Although Holiday, who was also known as Lady Day, was idolised by jazz musicians, by 1939 she was virtually ignored by the public at large. Clarinet player Artie Shaw believed this wounded her pride and said he thought that her failure to get a mass audience "was indirectly part of why she took drugs to ease the pain".

The real trouble came when Holiday, who was also a big whisky drinker, took a lover called Joe Guy, a trumpeter with an opium habit. After opium, which affected her voice and made her vomit, her choice of poison became heroin.

By the mid-1940s, with a failed marriage to the exploitative Jimmy Monroe behind her, she was spending $500 a week on drugs (£5,500 now). In 1947, she admitted herself into a clinic to try to kick the habit. A few weeks later she was using again. Days after playing a prestigious gig with Louis Armstrong, she was arrested by New York Police Department's Narcotics Squad at Hotel Grampion, when they found 16 capsules of heroin in her stocking.

She was sentenced to a year and a day in the federal Reformatory for Women at Alderson, West Virginia. Her records were banned on radio stations. The addiction cure at the prison was, she said, "like going through hell".

After getting out of prison, she attempted to stop using the needle, but her solution was to increase her intake of alcohol. She was soon downing two bottles of spirits a day.

Holiday loved being in front of the camera. She had appeared as an extra in a Paul Robeson film as a young girl and was terrifically excited when she got to know Orson Welles at the time he was preparing to make Citizen Kane. Welles, who would let Holiday watch him rehearse scenes from the film, told her he had been in talks with Duke Ellington about a jazz film called It's All True. Welles said he wanted Holiday and Armstrong to be a key part of his project, but sadly it never materialised.

When she toured England for the first time in 1954 she was excited and appreciated being met by Max Jones at London Airport, especially as he brought her a bottle of whisky. Although her reception from news reporters was hostile (at her first Press conference at Piccadilly Hotel a reporter opened proceedings by asking, "Are you still on dope?"), she remained upbeat.

Things went downhill when she returned to America. Now her weight was down to under 8st. Dr Herbert Henderson, who saw her when she was playing at Black Hawk Club in San Francisco in September 1958, told her she had cirrhosis of the liver.

A few weeks later, fans at the Monterey Jazz Festival were shocked by her gaunt appearance. She was shrunken to the bone. In one last, desperate attempt to get some money, she returned to Europe. She was booed off by an audience in Milan. In her final show, at Phoenix Theatre in Greenwich Village on May 25, 1959, she had to be helped off after two songs.

She really is worth the praise heaped on her by other singers and musicians. "Billie Holiday is the greatest single musical influence on me. Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on popular singing in America in the last 20 years," said Frank Sinatra, just before her death.

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