Monday, July 22, 2013


Billie Holiday has one of those voices that people either love or hate. I am one of millions of people that absolutely love her. Her voice, while never strong, had a sensitivity and warmth that few voices had. I wanted to research Holiday's most successful years in the 1940s to take a look at her most prolific decade in her career.

 In 1940, Holiday's mother Sadie Fagan, nicknamed "The Duchess," started her own restaurant called Mom Holiday's. Fagan used the money her daughter earned while shooting dice with members of the Count Basie band, whom she was on tour with in the late 1930s. "It kept mom busy and happy and stopped her from worrying and watching over me," Holiday said. Soon, Fagan began borrowing large amounts of money from Holiday because the restaurant wasn't turning a profit. Holiday obliged, but soon fell upon hard times herself. "I needed some money one night and I knew Mom was sure to have some," Holiday said. "So I walked in the restaurant like a stockholder and asked. Mom turned me down flat. She wouldn't give me a cent." The two argued and then, Holiday, in a rage, hollered "God bless the child that's got his own," and stormed out of the restaurant. With help from Arthur Herzog, Jr., a pianist, the two wrote a song based on the line "God Bless the Child" and added music.

"God Bless the Child" became Holiday's most popular and covered record. It reached number 25 on the record charts in 1941 and ranked third in Billboard's top songs of the year, selling over a million records. In 1976, the song was added to the Grammy Hall of Fame. Herzog later claimed that Holiday contributed little to the lyrics of her music, adding only a few lines. He also stated that Holiday came up with the line "God Bless the Child" from a dinner conversation the two had.

On June 24, 1942, Holiday recorded "Trav'lin Light" with Paul Whiteman. Because she was still under contract with Columbia records, she couldn't release the song under her own name and instead used the pseudonym "Lady Day." The song was a minor success on the pop charts, reaching number 23, but hit number one on the R&B charts, which were called the Harlem Hit Parade at the time. In September 1943, Life magazine complimented Holiday on her work. They wrote, "she has the most distinct style of any popular vocalist and is imitated by other vocalists."

Milt Gabler eventually became an A&R man for Decca Records, in addition to owning Commodore Records, and he signed Holiday to the label on August 7, 1944, when Holiday was 29. Her first recording for Decca was "Lover Man" (#16 Pop, No. 5 R&B), one of her biggest hits. The success and wide distribution of the song made Holiday a staple in the pop community, allowing her to have her own solo concerts, a rarity for jazz singers in the late 40s. Gabler commented on the song's success, saying, "I made Billie a real pop singer. That was right in her. Billie loved those songs." Jimmy Davis and Roger "Ram" Ramirez, "Lover Man"'s songwriters, tried to get Holiday interested in recording the song in 1941, but she didn't take interest. In 1943, a flamboyant male torch singer by the name of Willie Dukes began singing "Lover Man" on 52nd Street. Because of Duke's success with the song, Holiday decided to add it to her live shows. The song's B-side is "No More", a song Holiday considered one of her favorites.

In 1946, Holiday recorded "Good Morning Heartache". Although the song failed to chart, it remained a staple in her live shows with three known live recordings of the song. In September 1946, Holiday began work on what would be her only major film New Orleans. She starred opposite Louis Armstrong and Woody Herman. Plagued by racism and McCarthyism, producer Jules Levey and script writer Herbert Biberman were pressured to lessen Holiday and Armstrong's role in the film as to not give the impression that black people created jazz. Their attempts failed because in 1947 Biberman was listed as one of the Hollywood Ten and sent to jail.

Holiday was not pleased that her role was reduced to that of a maid: "I thought I was going to play myself in it," she said. "I thought I was going to be Billie Holiday doing a couple of songs in a nightclub setting and that would be that. I should have known better. When I saw the script, I did." Before filming, Holiday was assigned a dramatic coach who coached her on how to properly say "Miss Marylee", the lead character's name. "So this coach was trying to get the right kind of tom feeling into this thing," Holiday said. At one point, after feeling cornered and unable to walk off the set, she burst out into tears. Louis Armstrong tried comforting her. "Better look out," he said. "I know Lady, and when she starts crying, the next thing she's going to do is start fighting." Several scenes were deleted from the film. "They had taken miles of footage of music and scenes," Holiday said, "[and] none of it was left in the picture. And very damn little of me. I know I wore a white dress for a number I did... and that was cut out of the picture." She recorded the track "The Blues Are Brewin'", for the film's soundtrack. Other songs included in the movie are "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" and "Farewell to Storyville".

Unfortunately, Holiday's drug addictions were a growing problem on the set. She earned more than a thousand dollars a week from her club ventures at the time, but spent most of it on heroin. Her lover Joe Guy traveled to Hollywood while Holiday was filming and supplied her with drugs. When discovered by Joe Glaser, Holiday's manager, Guy was banned from the set. Louis Armstrong also tried to talk sense to Holiday, but the drug abuse was becoming a major problem.

By 1947, Holiday was at her commercial peak, having made a quarter of a million dollars in the three years prior. However, her world would start crashing down. On May 16, 1947, Holiday was arrested for the possession of narcotics in her New York apartment. On May 27, 1947, she was in court. "It was called 'The United States of America versus Billie Holiday'. And that's just the way it felt," Holiday recalled. During the trial, Holiday received notice that her lawyer was not interested in coming down to the trial and representing her. "In plain English that meant no one in the world was interested in looking out for me," Holiday said. Dehydrated and unable to hold down any food, she pled guilty and asked to be sent to the hospital. The D.A. spoke up in her defense, saying, "If your honor please, this is a case of a drug addict, but more serious, however, than most of our cases, Miss Holiday is a professional entertainer and among the higher rank as far as income was concerned." At the end of the trial, Holiday was sentenced to Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia, more popularly known as "Camp Cupcake". Holiday was released early on March 16, 1948, but the damage to her life being jailed was only the beginning of the end for one of the greatest vocal talents the jazz world has ever know...

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