It seemed appropriate that since the first week of April marks the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that I should write about an ongoing struggle for civil rights, expressed so eloquently in a recent play I witnessed while in Northern Virginia. Billie Holiday’s life story truly expressed the good, bad and ugly this talented woman experienced during her brief time with us.
The play, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill pays tribute to the tragic life of Billie Holiday, the jazz vocalist born in Philadelphia in 1915 to an unwed teenager named Sadie, who christened her child Eleanora Fagan. Briefly married for a time to Billie’s father, Clarence Holiday, a jazz guitarist, her mother moved them to Baltimore. Raped at age 10, and then again at age 14, Eleanora spent time in a harsh reform school, the memories of which hounded her for years. After she and her mother moved to New York she turned to prostitution to make a living, and worked the streets for three years before being arrested.
She was discovered by Jerry Preston at the Log Cabin Club, soon after her release from prison. Billie applied for a job as a dancer, but Preston said she stunk. She then said she could sing, and when she began her audition, the customers stopped drinking to listen to her.
Billie became a well-known fixture in Harlem during the 1930s and was signed to a recording contract in 1935. Even though her range had limitations and her voice didn’t project well, her phrasing and intonation were unmatched. Nat Hentoff, a critic for Downbeat Magazine, referred to her voice as “steel-edged yet soft inside.” Bandleader Artie Shaw would later refer to her vocal style as “having been copied and imitated by so many who followed in her footsteps that it was hard to realize how original she was.”
Being a black singer in the 1930s and 1940s meant Billie ran headlong into racial discrimination in America. Despite having mainstream success with recording labels such as Columbia Records and Decca Records, she still was not allowed to eat in the same dining hall as her white band members, or to use the bathrooms designated for whites only. The band took to eating in the kitchen along with her in solidarity. She performed with Count Basie and Artie Shaw, among others.
One of the harshest revelations that I came away with from the stage performance was her heroin addiction and how it happened. She married trombonist Jimmy Monroe, who told her no one had ever loved him. Despite her assurances that she did in fact love him, he told her he’d only believe her if she’d join him in getting high. She proved her love to him and developed a life-long heroin habit, which eventually killed her. She was arrested for drug possession in 1947, served ten months in prison and was stripped of her cabaret card, forbidding her from performing in nightclubs or any other establishment where liquor was sold. She played at Carnegie Hall and throughout Europe, but never again in the places where she felt most at home.
Billie’s health, and her drug addiction, continued to spiral out of control, until she died in the hospital in 1959, of cirrhosis. She had $750 taped to her leg and 70 cents in a bank account. She was only 44 years old.
Posthumously, Billie Holiday was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, the Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the ASCAP Jazz Wall of Fame.
Lady Sings The Blues, a movie about Billie Holiday’s life, was released in 1972 with Diana Ross in the starring role.
Becky Lower makes no claims to having a musical background, unless you count the numerous rock and roll bands she used to follow. She prefers to make melodies with words these days. Her most recent work in progress features a Scottish hero who loves to sing.