We know that Billie was born on 7 April 1815, but the facts about her childhood are murky at best, made no clearer by Lady Sings The Blues, Billie’s autobiography, which confused things further. Billie’s birth certificate named her father as DeViese whereas she insisted he was Clarence Holiday – Billie’s mother, Sadie’s childhood sweetheart, who later played guitar in Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra.
bused as a child, she had a spell in a Catholic children’s home before cleaning and running errands for a brothel madam. By 1928, Billie’s mother moved to Harlem with her daughter and before long they were both working in a brothel; fourteen-year-old Billie was charged with vagrancy and sent to a workhouse.
On her release Billie took up with a saxophonist and the pair of them began playing Harlem dives, Billie trying to emulate Bessie Smith whose records she loved. In October 1933, John Hammond, a music critic and record producer, heard her singing in a Harlem club and had her record a couple of sides with Benny Goodman. The first, 'Your Mother’s Son-In-Law', gives no hint of her promise.
It would be a year or so before Billie recorded again. Hammond coerced Brunswick Records into a session and the recordings came out as Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra – the first of close to 100 recordings Billie made with Wilson. These four sides – 'Miss Brown To You', 'What A Little Moonlight Can Do', 'I Wished Upon The Moon' and 'A Sunbonnet Blue' – should be in every jazz enthusiast’s library.
Over the next twelve months, Billie recorded a dozen more sides with Teddy before working under her own name, with her own orchestra. The first session was in July 1936. Other sessions followed, both under her own name and with Wilson, some featuring Lester Young on saxophone.
In 1937, Billie sang with the Count Basie Orchestra, and the following year she appeared with Artie Shaw, becoming one of the first black singers to appear with a white orchestra. It was not an easy engagement, with Billie being abused by a member of the audience in Kentucky. By the end of 1937, a disenchanted Billie had quit Shaw’s band after the Hotel Lincoln in New York demanded she use the kitchen entrance rather than the front door.
Billie then began appearing at Café Society in Greenwich Village. Her performances – especially the torch songs – amazed everyone, including 'I Cover The Waterfront'. However, there was one song that became synonymous with Billie during her spell at the club. One night, Lewis Allen, a New York public-school teacher spoke with Barney Josephson, Café Society’s owner, asking if Billie would sing a song he’d written – and so began the fascinating tale of 'Strange Fruit'.
Allen’s song was about the lynching of a black man in the Deep South that pulled no punches. The anti-lynching protest poem set to music is incredibly powerful and Columbia, Billie’s label, refused to release it. It came out on the smaller Commodore label, sharply dividing opinion. Audiences were stunned into silence when she sang it live – both men and women wept.
While Billie’s career was moving in the right direction, her personal life was not. She had several relationships, including one with guitarist Freddie Green, and then in the summer of 1941 she married Jimmy Monroe, best described as a hustler. In 1942, Monroe was caught smuggling drugs into California, and despite Billie getting him the best lawyers, he got a one-year sentence. Monroe was smuggling marijuana, which Billie had been smoking for years, and he also brought opium into her life. By 1944 she was using heroin; a trumpet player she had an affair with while Monroe was in prison got Billie hooked.
One of Billie’s biggest successes came in 1944 when she signed to Decca Records releasing, 'Lover Man'; Billie’s early recordings are collected together on The Complete Commodore / Decca Masters. The song resonated with many servicemen overseas and their wives and lovers back home. In February 1945, Billie appeared at The Philharmonic Auditorium on a JATP concert – the first of many – and the following year she featured in the movie New Orleans (1947), along with Louis Armstrong.
Billie’s drug problems came to the fore when she was arrested in May 1947 in Philadelphia and charged with possession of heroin, for which she received a one-year sentence. When Billie was released, she had kicked her habit and looked better than she had done in years. Almost immediately after she left prison, a concert was arranged at Carnegie Hall in March 1948; it was a sell out. She sang over thirty songs despite not having sung for nearly a year, including 'All Of Me', 'Fine And Mellow' and, naturally, 'Strange Fruit'. As one newspaper put it "Billie took her homage like a queen. Her voice, a petulant, sex-edged moan, was stronger than ever." Billie’s appearances at Jazz at The Philharmonic are on Jazz At the Philharmonic: The Billie Holiday Story, Vol. 1.
Jimmy Monroe, the man who the federal prosecutor described as the "worst type of parasite you can imagine", wasted no time in getting Billie back into her old habits. She was arrested again on a similar charge to her conviction, but this time she was acquitted.
Before long, a new man entered her life; John Levy was a club owner and about as bad as Monroe. He controlled Billie, since she was dependent on having a strong man in her life. Despite everything,Metronome magazine named Billie the best female singer in its annual poll in 1949.
In 1952, Billie recorded for the Clef label for the first time, away from JATP concerts, backed by Oscar Peterson, Barney Kessel, Flip Phillips and Charlie Shavers. The album Songs By Billie Holiday – Solitude (1952) was re-released by Verve in 1957. Other Clef albums followed that were repackaged, including Lady Sings The Blues (1955), before she started recording new material for Verve in 1957. Among the albums from this period that give an idea of where Billie was at by this stage in her career isAll Or Nothing At All (1955).
In 1954, Billie toured Europe and seemed happier than she had been in years, perhaps because she also had a new lover named Louis McKay, who at least kept drugs out of her life. By 1956, Billie published the aforementioned Lady Sings The Blues, which received some good reviews, but the book was a fictionalized account written with a journalist.
In 1957, Billie married Louis McKay, and while things initially went well, fights between the two became more common, especially when Billie found out he had lost much of her money in risky property speculation. Billie was also back on drugs. They split up and Billie moved into an apartment in New York with just her dog for company. Her drug habit, fortified by excessive drink, turned her into a pale shadow of her self. When Lester Young – probably her one true friend throughout her life and the one who named her Lady Day – died in March 1959, it was a terrible blow. Two months later, Billie was hospitalized from her drug use. She was refused entry to one hospital because she took drugs, and at a second one that allowed her in, a nurse found drugs at her beside and called the police, who arrested her. Just over a month later Billie died on 17 July 1959 in New York City, still in hospital, still under arrest.
Billie Holiday was a complex woman. She exasperated her friends, but at other times she was the sweetest-natured woman alive. Before the drugs, the booze and the lifestyle of an addict ravaged her voice and her body, there was no singer that came close to matching her intensity or her allure. Although it seems that every generation throws up one, maybe two, Holidayesque singers, none really has had the gift to do what really matters most: to sing like you really mean it.
Words - Richard Havers
Taken from a pair of sessions taped during 1955-1956, Lady Sings the Blues finds Holiday in top form and backed by the sympathetic likes of tenor saxophonist Paul Quinichette, trumpeters Charlie Shavers and Harry Edison, pianist Wynton Kelly, and guitarists Kenny Burrell and Barney Kessel. And while these autumnal sides bear some of the frayed vocal moments often heard on Holiday's '50s Verve sides, the majority here still ranks with her best material. This is especially true of the cuts from the June 1956 date, which produced unparalleled versions of "No Good Man," "Some Other Spring," and "Lady Sings the Blues." See why many fans prefer the "worn out" Holiday heard here to the more chipper singer featured on those classic Columbia records from the '30s.
Words - Stephen Cook
Billie Holiday's first recordings for Norman Granz' Clef Records present a vocalist truly at the top of her craft, although she would begin a rapid decline soon thereafter. This 1952 recording (originally issued as a 10" LP, Billie Holiday Sings) places Holiday in front of small piano and tenor saxophone-led groups including jazz luminaries such as Oscar Peterson and Charlie Shavers, where her gentle phrasing sets the tone for the sessions, evoking lazy evenings and dreamy afternoons.
The alcoholism and heroin use that would be her downfall by the end of this decade seems to be almost unfathomable during these recordings since Holiday is in as fine a voice as her work in the '30s, and the musical environment seems ideal for these slow torch songs. Solitude runs as the common theme throughout these 16 tracks; the idle breathiness of "These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)" finds the vocalist casually reminiscing, and Barney Kessel's warm guitar lines frame the title track beautifully. Several of Holiday's best-known recordings came from this session, including outstanding versions of "I Only Have Eyes for You" and a darkly emotional "Love for Sale," making this album far and away the best work of her later years, and certainly a noteworthy moment of her entire career.
Words - Zac Johnson
There are many jazz lovers, even dedicated ones, who cannot afford to part with the 150 dollars or so that the ten-disc Complete Billie Holiday on Verve commands, so this two-disc distillation will do very nicely as a detailed summary of her troubled, soulful Verve period. Set out in chronological order with a mighty overreaching sweep, this mini-box covers virtually the entire period, with a generous helping of the JATP events of the 1940s, jumping a few years into the jazz all-star backings of the '50s and the 1956 Carnegie Hall concert, and closing with her heartbreakingly ravaged final sessions with Ray Ellis' string orchestra. Along the way, several Holiday landmark tunes like "Don't Explain," "God Bless the Child," "Lover Man," "Fine and Mellow," and "He's Funny That Way" are revisited and reinterpreted from a bitter, life-worn perspective. But not all is stark tragedy, for life-affirming tracks like the 1957 "Stars Fell on Alabama" and "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You" add some balance to the picture. For very sensitive listeners, 128 minutes of Lady Day in her twilight years may well be all they'll need.
Words - Richard S. Ginell
Part of the label's top-notch series of roundup discs, Verve Jazz Masters 12: Billie Holiday cherry-picks the best of Holiday's '50s stretch under Norman Granz's watch. At her autumnal best, Holiday particularly shines on "Good Morning Heartache," "Yesterdays," and "Speak Low." The disc also spotlights the stellar playing of Harry "Sweets" Edison, Tony Scott, Ben Webster, Jimmy Rowles, and Barney Kessel. For fans already familiar with Holiday's earlier and more popular Columbia sides, this generous and commendable collection makes for the perfect introduction to her more pathos-rich later work.
Words - Stephen Cook
Of Verve's countless number of Billie Holiday samplers, this one -- which is actually a second helping from the Verve Jazz Masters series -- is as good as any of them artistically. Like many of its cousins on the shelves, this one takes in the whole cross-section of Holiday's recordings for Norman Granz from an exuberant 1945 JATP concert all the way to her last poignant sessions with the Ray Ellis string orchestra in 1959. Unlike them, this one does not contain songs with which Holiday is inextricably tied, but all of the well-worn standards are given the inimitable Holiday stamp, often in league with many of Granz's legendary soloists.
Of course, this is the most troubling period for Holiday scholars, for her voice was going downhill fast in the '50s, yet one has to admit that her Verve recordings often pack an emotional wallop that eclipses most of the earlier ones. A few random highlights: the JATP "All of Me" and "Body and Soul" from the mid-'40s, with Holiday in fresh voice and a whole bunch of star horns wailing in tangled contrapuntal splendor underneath; and a "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" from the Ray Ellis sessions where the combination of Holiday's broken-down voice and exquisite phrasing will break your heart. Verve's thorough discographical entries, here and in the entire Jazz Masters series, are exemplary for what is, after all, an inexpensive sampler for newcomers to jazz.
Words - Richard S. Ginell
If you're a completist who insists on having everything that Billie Holiday recorded, The Complete Commodore Recordings is required listening. But for the more casual listener, it's best to pass on that two-CD set and stick with The Commodore Master Takes. While The Complete Commodore Recordings contains all of the alternate takes that Holiday recorded for Commodore in 1939 and 1944, this collection only concerns itself with the master takes (which total 16). Holiday never singed an exclusive contract with Commodore -- she only freelanced for the label, and the ultra-influential jazz singer spent a lot more time recording for Columbia in the 1930s and early 1940s, and for Decca from 1944-1950.
But her Commodore output was first-rate, and Lady Day excels whether she's joined by trumpeter Frankie Newton's octet at a 1939 session or by pianist Eddie Heywood's orchestra at three sessions in 1944. The CD gets off to an impressive start with the controversial "Strange Fruit," a bone-chilling account of lynching in the Deep South that ended up being released on Commodore because Columbia was afraid to touch it. Holiday is also quite expressive on performances that range from "Fine and Mellow," "I Got a Right to Sing the Blues" and "Yesterdays" in 1939 to "My Old Flame," "Billie's Blues," "I'll Be Seeing You," and "He's Funny That Way" in 1944. For those with even a casual interest in Holiday's legacy, this superb CD is essential listening.
Words - Alex Henderson
This session comes from close to the end of the line (1959) in the erstwhile swinging company of Barney Kessel on guitar, Ben Webster on tenor, and naysayers will be quick to point out that Lady Day wasn't in peak form here. But Billie Holiday with some of the platinum chipped off the pipes is still way better than a buncha finger-snappin' wannabes anyday. Her interpretations of the title cut, "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," and "Darn That Dream" hold you in the palm of her hand with their gentle swing and the band support here is never less than stellar. This Mobile Fidelity reissue (also available as an audiophile vinyl pressing) features in-the-control-room sound that makes this session sound even cozier. The Lady sings and swings.
Words - Cub Koda.
Songs for Distingué Lovers forms part of the last series of extensive small-group recordings that Lady Day would make in the studio. Although her voice was largely shot at this point, she puts so much feeling into the lyrics that it's easy to overlook her dark sound. The band is a major asset, and made up of all-stars: trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison, tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, pianist Jimmie Rowles, guitarist Barney Kessel, bassist Red Mitchell, and Alvin Stoller or Larry Bunker on drums. There are plenty of short solos for Edison, Webster, and Kessel. Holiday does her best on such numbers as "A Foggy Day," "One for My Baby," "Just One of Those Things," and "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," and there are plenty of haunting moments, even if one could tell (even at the time) that the end was probably drawing near for the singer.
Words - Scott Yanow
This two-disc set features some of Billie Holiday's top Verve performances from the mid-'50s. Over the course of 28 cuts, she runs the emotional gamut from summery optimism ("Love Is Here to Stay") to pathos-rich musings ("Ill Wind"). Befitting her perennial after-hours mood while at the label, the majority of songs here feature Holiday in a low-down mood of the highest order: her versions of "Moonlight in Vermont" and "A Foggy Day" are classics of the jazz vocal tradition. And the supporting cast isn't bad either, what with the likes of Harry Eddison, Barney Kessel, Ben Webster, and Jimmy Rowles tagging along. A gem.
Words - Stephen Cook
This is a rather incredible collection: ten CDs enclosed in a tight black box that includes every one of the recordings Verve owns of Billie Holiday, not only the many studio recordings of 1952-57 (which feature Lady Day joined by such jazz all-stars as trumpeters Charlie Shavers and Harry "Sweets" Edison, altoist Benny Carter, and the tenors of Flip Phillips, Paul Quinichette and Ben Webster). Also included are prime performances at Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts in 1945-1947, an enjoyable European gig from 1954, her "comeback" Carnegie Hall concert of 1956, Holiday's rather sad final studio album from 1959, and even lengthy tapes from two informal rehearsals. It's a perfect purchase for the true Billie Holiday fanatic.
Words - Scott Yanow