Today, “legends” are ten a penny. When Billie Holiday was accorded the accolade it meant something. Lady Day was a brilliant singer, a great lyrical interpreter, she took chances, lived life hard, she could swing, she could swoon, she moaned low, was elegant and she was a soul singer before anyone had coined the phrase. She was one of the greatest jazz vocalists of all time.
We know when Billie was born (7 April 1915), yet that the facts about her childhood are murky, 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 – Sadie’s childhood sweetheart who later played guitar in Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra.
Abused 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 whorehouse; 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 to record a couple of sides with Benny Goodman. The first, Your Mother’s son-in-Law gives no hint of her promise.
Billie Holiday backstage at Carnegie Hall, mid-to-late 40s. Photo: Library Of Congress