Billie Holiday

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Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan; April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959) was an American jazz singer and songwriter.

Nicknamed Lady Day by her loyal friend and musical partner Lester Young, Holiday was a seminal influence on jazz and pop singing. Her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo. Above all, she was admired for her deeply personal and intimate approach to singing. Critic John Bush wrote that she “changed the art of American pop vocals forever.” She co-wrote only a few songs, but several of them have become jazz standards, notably “God Bless the Child”, “Don’t Explain”, and “Lady Sings the Blues”. She also became famous for singing jazz standards written by others, including “Easy Living” and “Strange Fruit.”

According to Billie Holiday’s own account, she was recruited by a brothel, worked as a prostitute in 1930, and was eventually imprisoned for a short time for solicitation. It was in Harlem in the early 1930s that she started singing for tips in various night clubs. According to legend, penniless and facing eviction, she sang “Travelin All Alone” in a local club and reduced the audience to tears. She later worked at various clubs for tips, ultimately landing at Pod’s and Jerry’s, a well known Harlem jazz club. Her early work history is hard to verify, though accounts say she was working at a club named Monette’s in 1933 when she was discovered by talent scout John Hammond.

Hammond arranged for Holiday to make her recording debut in November 1933 Benny Goodman singing two songs: “Your Mother’s Son-In-Law” and “Riffin’ the Scotch”. Goodman was also on hand in 1935, when she continued her recording career with a group led by pianist Teddy Wilson. Their first collaboration included “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Miss Brown To You”, which helped to establish Holiday as a major vocalist. She began recording under her own name a year later, producing a series of extraordinary performances with groups comprising the Swing Era’s finest musicians.

Billie Holiday with Count Basie in 1937Wilson was signed to Brunswick Records by John Hammond for the purpose of recording current pop tunes in the new Swing style for the growing jukebox trade. They were given free rein to improvise the material. Holiday’s amazing method of improvising the melody line to fit the emotion was revolutionary. (Wilson and Holiday took pedestrian pop tunes like “Twenty-Four Hours A Day” or “Yankee Doodle Never Went To Town” and turned them into jazz classics with their arrangements.) With few exceptions, the recordings she made with Wilson or under her own name during the 1930s and early 1940s are regarded as important parts of the jazz vocal library.

Billie also wrote songs during the 1930s. Such songs include “Billie’s Blues”, “Tell Me More (And Then Some)”, “Everything Happens For The Best”, “Our Love Is Different”, and “Long Gone Blues”.

Among the musicians who accompanied her frequently was tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who had been a boarder at her mother’s house in 1934 and with whom she had a special rapport. “Well, I think you can hear that on some of the old records, you know. Some time I’d sit down and listen to ‘em myself, and it sound like two of the same voices, if you don’t be careful, you know, or the same mind, or something like that.” Young nicknamed her “Lady Day” and she, in turn, dubbed him “Prez.” She did a three-month residency at Clark Monroe’s Uptown House in New York in 1937. In the late 1930s, she also had brief stints as a big band vocalist with Count Basie (1937) and Artie Shaw (1938). The latter association placed her among the first black women to work with a white orchestra, an arrangement that went against the tenor of the times.

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