Billie Holiday Blues Hall of Famer? by Monica L. Yasher, Pittsburgh, PA

Posted on 5/29/2009 by Monica Yasher

Billie Holiday Lived the Blues

Billie Holiday (1915-1959) was born in Baltimore, Maryland. Billie’s blues started at an extremely young age. At the age of thirteen she was thrown out of her parents home after becoming pregnant. She then lived with her grandparents and an older cousin while her mother left to work in New York City. Her father, a banjo and guitar player, left his family to tour with a jazz band. Billie's relatives abused and neglected her. With little help from the grown-ups around her, Billie had to start working as she ran errands and cleaned apartments for people in her neighborhood.
At one point, Billie went to New York to live with her mother. Her mother treated her the same as fend for herself. While there she was raped for the second time in her life. She did the best she could, but found herself spending a few months in jail. When Billie was released, she started singing in night clubs in order to earn money. When she was fifteen, she had to sing the same songs over and over again for customers. Billie learned to be creative and change her voice and timing slightly while repeating the same lyrics. This same style is used by many blues artists today.
Billie suffered from depression and mood swings in her early thirties. Her personal problems worsened when she became addicted to drugs and alcohol. As Billie tried to recover from addiction to drugs and alcohol, she had a comeback period during the mid-1950s. She performed at Carnegie Hall (a legendary, New York concert hall) and toured in Europe. Sadly, Billie was never able to overcome her drug addiction. Her health began to fail with liver and heart disease.

Billie Holiday died on May 31, 1959, when she was 45 years old with seventy cents in the bank.

Billie Holiday Sang the Blues....or did She?
Billie Holiday was considered a jazz and pop singer. Her song style was inspired by jazz instrumentalists as she further honed in on her technique of changing her voice and timing for lyrics. She is best known for putting herself into the music, her emotion is felt and exists in her recordings. She gained her experience as a vocalist from singing in the midst of Harlem’s jazz scene.

Billie’s first record deal was with Vocalion Records. The talented jazz pianist, Teddy Wilson, began recording with her in 1935. This musical relationship continued for 6 years. During the 30's and 40's the work performed with Billie and Teddy are considered important parts of the jazz vocal library. In addition, Billie worked with Count Basie and his orchestra for a year. Billie finished her touring days after being in the band, Artie Shaw’s all-white band. This proved to be a difficult time for Billie, since she could not use the restaurants and facilities that the all white band would use. Discrimination led to Billie ending her touring days.

Billie Holiday has written several jazz standards to her credit. The most known are “God Bless the Child”, “Lady Sings the Blues”, and “Don’t Explain”. She is most noted for her performance of the jazz tune, “Strange Fruit”, and “Easy Living”.

Question for Debate: Should Billie Holiday be in the Blues Hall of Fame?
She is listed as a 20th century master blues artist inducted into the blues hall of fame in 1991. Yet, I see constant references of being a great jazz singer. Billie Holiday’s life definitely reflects the blues. So, what do you think? Should she be there? She is also listed in the rock and roll hall of fame. But, that’s another story!

Regardless of your opinion, Billie can always be considered Fine and Mellow

Copyright © 2009 Copyright Monica L. Yasher. All Rights Reserved.

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