Lady Day – July 17, 1959

Lady Day  - July 17, 1959

On July 17, 1959, the music stopped. Tragically, we lost the beautiful & talented, Billie Holiday, or as Lester Young nicknamed her: “Lady Day”. Billie was a pioneer of jazz music, becoming a mainstream, female, African-American singer. Her vocals “changed the art of American pop vocals forever”. Songs like, “Fine & Mellow”, “Easy Living”, & “Strange Fruit” are hauntingly, melodic. Most critics agree, she was possibly the greatest singer of the century.. In Billie’s autobiography: “Lady Sings the Blues”, she tells of her rough childhood..”rough” being an understatement. Billie was raped by a neighbor at age 12, the man was prosecuted and Billie was the state’s witness. After her stay in protective custody, Billie lived with her mother. Her mother was down and out, in Harlem. Mother and daughter were staying at a brothel, and her mother worked as a prostitute. Billie, not yet 14 and had just been raped, was turned into a prostitute, as well. The house was raided, in 1929 and all parties went to jail. Billie was released that year. Holiday found solace in listening to jazz records, that she could get her hands on. Namely, Louis Armstrong & Bessie Smith, albums. In Harlem, Billie earned her bread and butter, by singing in various night clubs. It was when she filled in for a more popular singer (Monette Moore) at a club called Covan’s, she got her break. The producer John Hammond, who came to see Monette, first heard Holiday in early 1933. He arranged for Holiday to make her recording debut, at age 18, alongside Benny Goodman. Holiday’s first single sold over, 5,000 copies. Hammond quickly signed Billie to a contract. He gave Billie free rein to improvise the songs she was given to work with. The studio didn’t like it, but after Holiday’s version of, “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” had major success, the studios let her do her thing. Throughout her 20’s Billie’s solo and duet songs, made her quite famous. In 1936, “Summertime” became a big hit for Billie and put her in direct competition with greats like, Count Basie & Ella Fitzgerald. Billie started to be known for being temperamental, but who an blame her when she couldn’t sit in on the bandstand, because she was black? Artie Shaw hired Lady Day and Billie won the rite as the first black woman to sing with an all-white, orchestra. In early ’38 Shaw & Holiday were nationally broadcast into the homes of Americans, who fell in love with their contemporary, jazz. The band won battles against Dorsey and Red Navarro, with the audience standing for Billie. But, Holiday wasn’t being treated like the rest of the band. She was asked to use the service elevator, she couldn’t dine in certain supper clubs and Billie grew tired of it, all. She left Shaw, in 1938. By this time, Billie was an act all of her own, topping the Billboard charts. In 1940, Holiday’s troubled mother, Sadie made a return in her life, and in her money. Sadie was given money by Billie to start her restaurant, “Mom Holiday’s”. But it wasnt enough.. Mom began borrowing large amounts of money from Holiday because the restaurant was not turning a profit. Holiday obliged, but soon fell upon hard times herself. Billie said,”I needed some money one night and I knew Mom was sure to have some,” Holiday said. “So I walked in the restaurant like a stockholder and asked. Mom turned me down flat. She wouldn’t give me a cent.” She channelled her anger about her mother, back into music and wrote the hit, “God Bless the Child”. This became Billie’s most popular and covered, song. By 1947, Holiday was at her commercial peak, having made a quarter of a million dollars in the three years prior. Misfortune came Holiday’s way when she was busted for possession of narcotics the same year. It became a big, stink. The state prosecuted, but Billie fell ill and received a light sentence at a prison nicknamed, “Cupcake Camp”. She was released the same year. March 27, 1948, Holiday played Carnegie Hall to a sold-out crowd. There were 2,700 tickets sold in advance, a record at the time for the venue. Her popularity at the time was unusual in that she didn’t have a current hit record, but she had just returned from “prison”. Everyone loves an underdog! She sang 32 songs that night and a fan sent her a large, white gardenia, her style trademark. It was Billie’s finest, moment. By the 1950s, Holiday’s drug abuse, drinking, and relationships with abusive men caused her health to deteriorate. By 1959, she learned that she had cirrhosis of the liver. The doctor told her to stop drinking, which she did for a short time, but soon relapsed. She was hospitalized May 31, 1959 and the cops raided her hospital room (!) for drugs, as she lay dying, from the cirrhosis and heart disease. They placed her under arrest (!!) and had police stationed in front of her room, until the day, Billie passed away. Despite Billie’s troubles and tragedy, I think Frank Sinatra described her impact on the world music, the best: “With few exceptions, every major pop singer in the US during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius. It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me. Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing”.

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