Article abstract: One of the most influential jazz singers ever recorded, Billie Holiday created the standards by which jazz singers continue to be judged. Her life reflected the racism of a white entertainment industry and the sexism within a male- dominated jazz world.
Although she is known as a hometown celebrity in Baltimore, Billie Holiday was actually born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on April 7, 1915. Much about her early life is unknown. Much of what is said about her comes from her autobiography, which is known to be inaccurate in many respects. Her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, written with the help of author William Dufty, represented Holiday’s early years as pitiful and worthy of sympathy. This account has Billie Holiday starting life as Eleanora Fagan, born to thirteen-year-old Sadie Fagan and eighteen-year-old Clarence Holiday. A second, more accurate account by Robert O’Meally, author of Lady Day, has established the ages of her mother and father as nineteen and seventeen, respectively. Billie Holiday said that she took on the Holiday name when her parents married three years later and moved to a home on Durham Street in East Baltimore, but O’Meally could never establish that that marriage took place or that her parents had ever lived together. He concluded that the move from Philadelphia to Baltimore was her mother’s attempt to start over. In Baltimore, Holiday’s mother worked as a maid to support the two of them. The autobiography explained that Eleanora became “Billie,” a name she took from her screen idol, Billie Dove. This source also noted that her father was drafted during World War I, was sent to Europe, and suffered lung damage from inhaling poisonous gas. While recovering in Paris, he learned how to play the guitar, and he played professionally when he returned home to the United States, a career that required much traveling and family separation. He toured as a musician with the jazz band of Fletcher Henderson and soon abandoned his family, leaving Sadie struggling to make a living. Eventually, the couple divorced. Whatever the reason, young Holiday lived a solitary life as a child.
Her mother left Holiday with relatives in Baltimore while she went to New York seeking better wages. Holiday stayed with a physically abusive cousin, Ida, her maternal grandparents, her great-grandmother, and Ida’s two children, with whom Holiday had to share a bed. The great-grandmother told stories about her life as a slave on the plantation of Charles Fagan, the father of her sixteen children. Holiday was traumatized when her great-grandmother died after lying down with Eleanora for a story and a nap. According to the autobiography, Holiday awoke and could not loosen the dead arms, which had to be broken to remove them from her small body.
According to Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday spent her early years in extreme poverty, working at six as a babysitter and a step scrubber. She finished the fifth grade in the Baltimore schools. She performed household chores for Alice Dean, a brothel owner, ran errands for the prostitutes, and listened to the jazz that was played on the record player in the parlor of the brothel. As the records played, she sang along. By 1925, mother and daughter had saved enough money to move to a house on Pennsylvania Avenue in northern Baltimore, where the mother met a dockworker named Philip Gough, who became her husband. Within a short time, his sudden death brought the family to poverty again. An attempted rape of young Holiday by a forty-year-old neighbor led to more terror when she was put in jail to ensure her testimony and then was placed in a home for wayward girls until she reached twenty-one years of age. The judge assumed that her mature appearance had brought on the rape. Robert O’Meally found that Holiday was sent at age ten to the House of the Good Shepherd, a Catholic home for African American girls. Their records indicated that she had no guardian and was on the streets at this time. Her mother, unable to help young Holiday, again went North seeking better wages.
Holiday wanted to be with her mother, who managed to reverse the judge’s ruling and bring her daughter to New York to work as a maid in 1927. From that time, Holiday and her mother remained close throughout her lifetime. Holiday boarded in a Harlem apartment owned by Florence Williams, a well-known madam. Billie became a twenty-dollar call girl to earn money. The profession led to arrests and a four-month prison term when her mother testified that her daughter was eighteen (she was thirteen) years old so that she could avoid another term in a home for wayward girls. Holiday returned to prostitution after her release, and both mother and daughter could afford to move to an apartment on 139th Street in 1929. It was not long before the effects of the Great Depression touched the Holiday women.
Not until she received an eviction notice in 1930 did Billie Holiday launch her career as a singer. To avert her forthcoming eviction, she sought work as a dancer at Pod’s and Jerry’s, a Harlem speakeasy. Since she was no dancer, she asked to sing. Jerry Preston, the owner, was so impressed with her presentation that he offered her the job. From that point on, Holiday enjoyed recognition as part of a floor show featuring tap dancer Charles “Honi” Coles and bassist George “Pops” Foster. In 1933, when Prohibition was repealed, the speakeasies became legitimate jazz clubs, and jazz enthusiast John Hammond heard Holiday perform in Monette’s, a jazz club on 133rd Street. He noticed her exquisite phrasing and manipulation of lyrics, which led him to give her a rave review in the magazine Melody Maker. He brought influential musicians and managers to hear her sing, and soon organized her first recording session, which launched her public career. A few days after her twentieth...
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