An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Billie Holiday

Mar 14, 2019 by

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Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1. While there have been a number of great jazz singers, one name seems to stand out as one of the first, and one of the best: Billie Holiday. What was her real name, when and where was she born?

The person we known as Billie Holiday actually had the name Eleanora Fagan given to her at birth on April 7, 1915 in Baltimore. She would adopt the pseudonym “Billie Holiday” soon after she began her singing career. Because she had delivered her baby out of wedlock, Billie’s teen-aged mother had to leave her parents’ home and move in with her half-sister. With few options for employment, Billie’s mother went to work as an attendant for a railroad company. This meant that Billie saw her mother only infrequently during her early formative years.

2. What were her early years like?

In her autobiography, Billie Holiday paid only scant attention to her early days, but her biographers discovered that she had a difficult childhood. Abandoned by her father shortly after her birth and having little contact with her mother due to the nature of her job, Billie had no one to guide her as she grew up. Not surprisingly, she developed bad habits, among them truancy. That behavior resulted in an appearance before a Baltimore juvenile court, which remanded her in 1925 to the House of the Good Shepherd, a Catholic reform school.

Nine months later, her mother took her out of the House of the Good Shepherd, and put her to work in a restaurant that she had opened. After a neighbor attempted to sexually assault Billie in 1926, the state of Maryland put her back into the House of the Good Shepherd until the case came to trial. In the meantime, her mother moved to New York City, and Billie would join her there in 1929.

3. She apparently lived in Harlem, New York, for a time. How did she spend her time there—learning her craft so to speak?

Billie’s mother had established a residence at 151 West 140th Street in Harlem, and that is where Billie lived after rejoining her mother. It turned out that that location housed a brothel, and Billie and her mother began working as prostitutes there. The police arrested both of them in May of 1929, and the state sent Billie to a workhouse for five months. Upon her release, Billie began to sing in night clubs in New York City.

At first, Billie worked with a saxophone player named Kenneth Hollan, but after two years she became a solo artist. By the age of 17, Billie became a headline performer, appearing at the most famous clubs in Harlem. Soon she and Ella Fitzgerald became the two most famous African-American jazz singers in the United States.

4. Her first record was at the age of 18. What was it, and how was it received?

In the fall of 1932, Billie received an offer to replace Monette Moore as the lead singer at Covan’s, at the time a popular club in Harlem. A producer named John Hammond showed up one night, expecting to hear Moore perform, but saw Billie instead. Very impressed with her, Hammond convinced a record company to produce two singles featuring Billie, with Benny Goodman providing the accompaniment.

The first record, “Your Mother’s Son-in-Law,” sold a paltry 300 copies, but the second did much better. Titled “Riffin’ the Scotch,” that record sold 5,000 copies. Based on this success, Hammond convinced Brunswick Records to sign Billie to a contract. He first big hit with that label came in 1935, when she recorded “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.”

Even though the luster on her career began to fade, she remained productive until the late 1950s. She did her last recording in 1959, only a few months before her death. That album was released posthumously, titled “Last Recording.” Apparently her own personal life was problematic.

5. What do we know about her personal tragedies, if you will?

Unfortunately, Billie Holiday battled a whole host of demons in her life. By all accounts, she had started using hard drugs (primarily heroin) in her late twenties, and in 1947 federal authorities arrested her and sent her to prison for a year. Released in 1948, authorities arrested her again a year later. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics arrested her a third time in 1959. In addition to drug addiction, Billie also battled alcohol abuse. Indeed, in 1959 she received a diagnosis of cirrhosis.

In addition to her drug and alcohol use, poor choices in men also plagued her. Indeed, a number of her romantic interests abused her, both mentally and physically. These problems make Lady Sings the Blues, the title of her autobiography written in 1956, seem especially fitting for her sorrow-filled life.

6. What were her later years like, and how did she die?

Although she continued to perform into the 1950s, her vocal qualities began to deteriorate. She sold fewer and fewer records, reported only earning $11 in royalties in 1958. And as we have seen, her doctors diagnosed her with cirrhosis in 1959. Advised by her physicians that she should abstain from drinking, Holiday tried to quit, but soon found the temptation to resume her habit too much to resist.

This worsened her condition, and friends eventually had her admitted to a hospital in May of that year. Astonishingly, federal agents arrested her on a narcotics charge while she lay there in the hospital bed. They handcuffed her, and put her under armed guard. A little more than a month later, the government finally relented, and decided to remove the guards from her hospital room. Billie did not have long to enjoy her newfound privacy, however, as she passed away the next day.

Although she had chosen the lifestyle that lead to her demise at a relatively young age, the death of such a talented singer nonetheless saddened many at the time, and still does to this day. Sadly, Billie Holiday would not be the last talented entertainer to die at a young age from substance abuse.

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