Friday, March 9, 2012

THE LAST DAYS OF BILLIE HOLIDAY

When jazz singer Billie Holiday was first starting out in the 1930s, her phrasing and voice were audio gold. She did not have the great singing voice, but on those jazz 78s of the 1930s, Holiday could express a mood in a few short minutes. Holiday had a very sad life. She was born in 1915, not knowing who her father was and living a childhood where her mother reportedly was a prostitute. By the age of fourteen, Billie herself was a prostitute, and as early as 1930 she and her mom were arrested in a raid.

The 1930s saw Billie at the height of her career. She worked with some greats of jazz like Count Basie, Artie Shaw, and Teddy Wilson. She not only broke color barriers but transended them. Unfortunately, her success was not enough to conquer her past demons. By the 1950s, Holiday's drug abuse, drinking, and relationships with abusive men caused her health to deteriorate. She appeared on the ABC reality series The Comeback Story to discuss attempts to overcome her misfortunes. Her later recordings showed the effects of declining health on her voice, as it grew coarse and no longer projected its former vibrancy.

On March 28, 1957, Holiday married Louis McKay, a Mafia enforcer, who like most of the men in her life was abusive, but he did try to get her off drugs. They were separated at the time of her death, but McKay had plans to start a chain of Billie Holiday vocal studios, à la Arthur Murray dance schools.



Holiday's late recordings on Verve constitute about a third of her commercial recorded legacy and are as popular as her earlier work for the Columbia, Commodore and Decca labels. In later years, her voice became more fragile, but it never lost the edge that had always made it so distinctive.

In early 1959 she found out that she had cirrhosis of the liver. The doctor told her to stop drinking, which she did for a short time, but soon returned to heavy drinking. By May she had lost twenty pounds. Friends Leonard Feather, Joe Glaser, and Allan Morrison tried to get her to check into to a hospital, but she put them off.

On May 31, 1959, Holiday was taken to Metropolitan Hospital in New York suffering from liver and heart disease. She was arrested for drug possession as she lay dying, and her hospital room was raided by authorities. Police officers were stationed at the door to her room. Holiday remained under police guard at the hospital until she died from pulmonary edema and heart failure caused by cirrhosis of the liver on July 17, 1959. In the final years of her life, she had been progressively swindled out of her earnings, and she died with $0.70 in the bank and $750 (a tabloid fee) on her person. Her funeral mass was held at Church of St. Paul the Apostle in New York City.


Gilbert Millstein of The New York Times, who had been the narrator at Billie Holiday's 1956 Carnegie Hall concerts and had partly written the sleeve notes for the album The Essential Billie Holiday described her death in these same 1961-dated sleeve notes:

"Billie Holiday died in the Metropolitan Hospital, New York, on Friday, July 17, 1959, in the bed in which she had been arrested for illegal possession of narcotics a little more than a month before, as she lay mortally ill; in the room from which a police guard had been removed – by court order – only a few hours before her death, which, like her life, was disorderly and pitiful. She had been strikingly beautiful, but she was wasted physically to a small, grotesque caricature of herself. The worms of every kind of excess – drugs were only one – had eaten her ... The likelihood exists that among the last thoughts of this cynical, sentimental, profane, generous and greatly talented woman of 44 was the belief that she was to be arraigned the following morning. She would have been, eventually, although possibly not that quickly. In any case, she removed herself finally from the jurisdiction of any court here below"...

28 comments:

  1. Wow! I had never known about Billie Holiday's life! This was a great post and so heartbreaking too. I can't imagine laying there dying as police are raiding your room...seems a little disrespectful to me I guess.
    Thank you so much for joining in the blogathon!

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    1. My mom had just started her nursing career in Metropolitan Hospital back in 1959. Billie Holiday was one of her first patients. I remember her telling me about her arrest and doing drugs in her hospital room. At that time, I had never heard of Billie. I was only 16. I know my mom was heartbroken about the tragedy of her life. Since then, I became a huge fan. That's my small link to that great woman. I love her music, her voice and her tender expression.

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    2. That's awesome really. I would give anything to hear the late greats of her time!

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  2. I knew her life was bad, but I didn't know it was that bad! My mother loves her and the first thing she does in the car is start her CD up! Billie made lots of people smile...it's too bad she couldn't herself. Lovely post!

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  3. Have you see the film, Lady Sings the Blues (1972). The biographical film about jazz singer Billie Holiday, loosely based on her life? Diana Ross plays Holiday. It is an awesome film..

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    1. Very loosely based on Billie's life is correct, had they put the real truth of Lady Day's life, the film would probably had never gotten produced. I love the "Lady In Satin" album, such a waste of a great woman with an awesome talent to interpret the tunes she sang...Jazz at it's best

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  4. What a voice this woman had. So much talent wasted on drug dependency and overall personal weakness.

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    1. Personal weakness...the woman survived the depths of hell during her short time on this earth. Who are you to judge her as weak? Perhaps had you had her life the same might have happened to you.

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    2. Thank you for putting this unfortunate comment in its place. Addiction is a disease, not a "personal weakness", and attitudes like that are what discourage people from getting help. We all need to do our part to combat such ignorance. RIP Billie Holliday...

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    3. Amen. July 26th,2015

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    4. She didn't ask for the life she was born into. To her the drug use wasn't her being weak, iybwas an escape from the life she had. She was born a broken soul

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  5. I knew about the drugs and the hospital raid, but the poor woman was also a teenage prostitute? It's a miracle that she managed to record as much as she did. I wonder if she ever had the will to live, given how tough her upbringing was.

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  6. Lobosco,
    I'm glad you chose to pay tribute to Billie Holiday! She certainly had a voice like no other. I could listen to her and Dinah Washington all day.

    You've written a great tribute. I enjoyed reading information I didn't know about Billie! It's sad really that her troubled life and death often overshadow her amazing talent. A voice like an angel and a death undeserving of anyone.

    Page

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  7. I am really a big fan. I will read anything about lady day. Wish I could have met the
    Lady!

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  8. I did not know Lady Billie's life was so tragic. My heart pains and tears swell in my eyes and down my cheeks. I get angry when people refer to her illinesses as weaknesses. She was born in a physical and emotional war. You can hear her spirit and soul in her singing. I believe she continued to look for ways to deal with all of her pains. I never knew she went through all of that. It is horrible the way she was mistreated by people and organizations. She was a beautiful talented lady. God Bless her spirit.
    Brenda McDougal

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  9. Than you for the tribute to Lady Billy. She was a beautifully talented lady. My heart pains and tears roll down my cheeks. It is so horrible the way people and organizations treated her. I get angry when people refer to her pain and illnesses as weaknesses. This beautiful lady was born in a physical, emotional, and financial war with so little resources available to her. You can feel her spirit and soul when you listen to her music. I see her continually trying to deal with all the pain she was in.

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  10. No one knew her pain but GOD ! Sometimes music is not enough,especially when it stops playing !!!!!!

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  11. I played the role of Joe Glaser (Billies manager) in a play called Shades of Blue: The Decline and Fall of Lady Day written by Steven Carl McCasland! We just closed with our last performance 2 days ago. It was a raw look at this super talented individual. It dealt with her last years all the way until the day of her death. She was handcuffed to her bed when she died at Metropolitan Hospital. This play had no music and it was factual! It was a great piece of work by all the actors involved and great writing. Look for it in the future! A must see. All performances were sold out and it's a great way to understand her life. To hide her pain (she was raped at the age of 13 the same time her mother left her) very sad life!

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  12. Audra Mc Donald did her justice

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    1. I concur, Audra McDonald is a must see show. She was Ms Day from the moment she walked on to the stage...until she exit...Ms Ross gave an okay performance but Ms McDonald gives a super performance, she paid honor to Ms Day.

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  13. I FIRST SAW THE MOVIE LADY SINGS BLUES WHEN I WAS 15YEARS OLD,I AM 46 NOW AND I HAVE CRIED FOR BILLIE
    EVERY SINCE

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  14. A tragic loss to a beautiful human being.Billie's voice was unmatched

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  15. Lady Day was a beautiful. misunderstood person..Diana Ross portrayed her well in the movie and I just loved handsome and sexy Billy Dee as Louis McCay

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  16. Billie Holiday was beautifully talented and lived a tragic life filed with heartache. Drugs seemed to be an escape from life, painful memories and that heartache. What's awesome is that she created and left a beautiful legacy in the midst of all the heartache and tragedy...and for that I say thank you Ms. Holiday, for sharing your gift and your life.

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  17. "Lady Sings The Blues" is a lovely movie BUT you might want to do your do diligence when it comes to the REAL life and music of Billie Holiday and not just re-write what others have written ! Further more BILLIE HOLIDAY'S sound from the BEGINNING till the END as well as her FIRST record to her LAST defined JAZZ. She and Louis Armstrong's horn HELP to formulate America's Greatest art form!

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    1. Thank you! The film was well made and entertaining, but it was in no way true to Billie Holliday's life. Her actual life was substantially more harrowing and devastating, in amazing ways that were too much for Hollywood to handle at the time (perhaps ever). The truth of her life substantiates her artistry, and it is worth seeking out...

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  18. This is truly a shame, the results of slavery . Black people not being able
    to find jobs, housing, and discrimination. Folks putting drugs in neighborhoods to make money on the weak.

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