BILLIE HOLIDAY Vol.3
\Trav'lin' Light" Original Recordings 1940-1944
"Many's the whipping I got for listening to Louis's recordswhen I was a kid ... When I was nine I used to run errands for the woman on thecorner because she'd let me listen to all of Bessie's records."
The tragic cult-figure of jazz par excellence, BillieHoliday now holds a special rank among the great female singers because ratherthan in spite of how she lived. Like heroines in other spheres, such as Garlandor Callas, her life and its travails exemplify the 'romantic' idea that greatart and tragedy are frequent bosom companions. Holiday the brazen and defiantblues stylist and Holiday the fatally insecure drug-addict are two sides of thesame coin. Via the recording microphone - which she claimed terrified her -Holiday the artist found temporary renewal, a fleeting elevation from life'sills, but despite her new-found wealth remained a prey to her own insecurityand vulnerability.
Born Eleonora Fagan in the black ghetto of Baltimore on 7April 1915, Billie did not have an easy start in life as the daughter of SadieFagan, a sixteen-year-old housemaid and Clarence Holiday, an eighteen-year-oldtrumpeter who, having sustained lung injuries during military service in Francein World War I, took up guitar and banjo instead. By 1921 Clarence hadeffectively aband-oned his family to tour the States with McKinney's CottonPickers and, by about a decade later, was ensconced in Fletcher Henderson'sprestigious Roseland Ballroom society jazz-band. Meanwhile Billie had been left to grow up the hard way onthe streets of her native city, earning a living even as a child scrubbingfloors in the houses of Balti-more's wealthy white population and, arriving atpuberty, as a prostitute. These early years of Billie's life are obscure, butshe is believed to have first joined her mother in New York City, in 1928.
Like her younger counterpart and soon-to-be rival EllaFitzgerald, as a child Billie had been impressed and inspired by the jazz sheheard on recordings by Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith and, after she andSadie arrived in Harlem, she was able to observe Louis and her other jazzheroes in the flesh. From the ageof fifteen she sang in speakeasies, improvising vocals at jam-sessions withplayers of the highest calibre, including Benny Carter, Roy Eldridge, CharlieShavers, Buck Clayton and Lester 'Prez' Young (1909-1959), her subsequent workcolleague and platonic soul-mate. Early in 1933 record scout John Hammond(1910-1987) first heard Billie at the Long Cabin Club. He introduced her toBenny Goodman - in a suitably colourful location: "Billie was singing at Pod'sand Jerry's Log Cabin, a club on 133rd Street, near Monette Moore's old place,and the one spot in Harlem known to many white musicians. It stayed open untildawn and was presided over by one of the original characters of jazz, Willie'The Lion' Smith, who conversed flamboyantly while playing fine stride piano."
Goodman booked Billie and, in November and December 1933 shemade her first recordings with the Goodman orchestra at his own first Columbiasessions and although her earliest association with the clarinet ace was not anunqualified success, from mid-1935 onwards it brought her into closeassociation - again via Hammond - with the Texas-born pianist Theodore 'Teddy'Wilson (1912-1986). During 1935 Billie was signed by Louis Armstrong's manager,Joe Glaser and, from mid-1936, she was given a higher profile recording aparallel series of discs, billing her as 'Billie Holiday And Her Orchestra'.Comprising items in a more intimate and sentimental vein, these featured Wilsonand other ad hoc musicians. Although they apparently never performed togetherpublicly, Holiday and Wilson enjoyed a four-year recording partnership, whichby general agreement produced Billie's finest discs. As people Wilson therefined ex-Talladega College music graduate and Holiday the foul-mouthedex-hooker were unlikely bedfellows, but together they made magical music.Between July 1935 and the musicians union strike of 1942 Billie made over ahundred records, many with small groups fronted by Teddy.
Although she was initially proclaimed as 'The Lady Who SingsThe Blues' and type-cast in the twelve-bar Bessie Smith tradition, thepreponder-ance of Tin Pan Alley and Swing numbers among Billie's earlyrecordings attests to the recording studios' conscious efforts to cash in onthe more marketable aspects of blues singing. Several of her records (beginningwith 'What A Little Moonlight Can Do', in 1934) sold in fair numbers to anunspecialised (i.e. non-jazz) audience, but despite a rapid succession ofpopular titles issued on Brunswick and Vocalion labels, Billie was destinednever to become a popular cult figure with the larger public during herlifetime. She toured with Count Basie in 1937, with Artie Shaw in 1938 andcontinued to record with Wilson until 1939, then suddenly forsook the bandscene to promote her own solo act at Barney Josephson's New York's Cafe SocietyClub, in an attempt to give new direction to her blues singing. She had a strong jazz following, plus acertain leftist cult interest attendant on her recording for Commodore of'Strange Fruit', but in a palpable sense controversial numbers like this,however valid in their context, tended to remove Billie from the commerciallimelight.
Unlike Ella Fitzgerald, Billie lacked the temp-erament for asolo career - despite the acclaim she won at top nightspots, her progress washampered by alcohol and heroin addiction and an inner diffidence caused bydeep-rooted personal problems. From about 1940 onwards her recorded output took on a graver, sadder,more distinctly autobiographical connotation. She began to incline more andmore towards slow tempi and songs with depressing lyrics, numbers such asLoveless Love and Rezso Seress's famous 'suicide song' of 1936, Gloomy Sunday,prompting Johnny Mercer (clearly a big fan) to remark 'She made you feel sheneeded help'. By 1944 thespontaneity of her performance was often audibly undermined by the drug habitswhich, over the next decade, would plague her physically and mentally and landher regularly in deep water with the law.
Billie Holiday died in a New York hospital on 31 May 1959,three years after publishing her colourful but deliberately misleading memoirLady Sings The Blues. A bestseller, this provided both inspiration and basicframework for the Oscar-nominated 1972 Paramount-Motown film of the same name.Starring Diana Ross as our heroine, this sensationalising of Billie's tragiclife, dismissed by Halliwell as an 'old-fashioned showbiz biopic withnew-fashioned drugs, sex and squalor', did little to dispel the mythologizingcult which has for too long overemphasised the more dubious aspects of a uniquetalent. On records - rhythmic andclear in the '30s and later, admittedly, often gnarled by her experiences -Billie Holiday may now be viewed more objectively, within the broader traditionof jazz vocalising.
Peter Dempsey, 2003