Next up in my “great crooners” series is the inexpressibly wonderful Eleanora Fagan. What, you’ve never heard of her? By the time she died, at the age of 44, Lady Day (as tenor saxophonist Lester Young called her) was jazz royalty.
Her early life was difficult, to say the least. Born in a poor part of Baltimore of a 13-year-old mother, young Eleanora got into a lot of trouble as a child and was frequently truant. After she was raped at age 11, she was sent to a Catholic reform school f0r two years before moving to New York City with her mother. A year later her mother caught a neighbor in the act of raping Eleanora. Not long thereafter she was recruited by a brothel, and she spent some time in prison for prostitution.
In the early 1930s she started singing for tips in night clubs, and Eleanora became Billie Holiday. Her professional pseudonym was taken from Billie Dove, an actress she admired, and Clarence Holiday, her probable father. According to legend, penniless and facing eviction, she sang “Trav’lin All Alone” in a local club and reduced the audience to tears. Within three years she was discovered by a talent scout, and she began making recordings. This is one of her earliest — “Saddest Tale” (a.k.a. “Big City Blues”), from 1935:
In the late 1930s she was introduced to “Strange Fruit,” a song based on a poem by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx. Meeropol used the pseudonym Lewis Allen for the poem, which was set to music and performed at teachers’ union meetings.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees
It was eventually heard by Barney Josephson, proprietor of Café Society, an integrated nightclub in Greenwich Village, who introduced it to Holiday. She performed it at the club in 1939 with some trepidation, fearing possible retaliation. In a 1958 interview, she bemoaned the fact that many people did not grasp the song’s message: “They’ll ask me to ‘sing that sexy song about the people swinging,'” she said.
When she recorded “Strange Fruit,” it did not get a great deal of airplay on the radio, but it sold well — perhaps due to the record’s B side, “Fine and Mellow,” which was a juke box hit. This 1957 performance of “Fine and Mellow” is perhaps the single most famous “live jazz” performance in TV history. The YouTube notes say:
Reunited after many years with tenor saxophonist Lester Young, Billie’s visual reaction to his moving solo remains as eloquent as anything she ever sang, a touching finale to their historic musical partnership. Introduced by Robert Herridge (producer/host of CBS’ The Sound of Jazz). Other members of the all-star band seen here: Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Gerry Mulligan, Roy Eldridge, Doc Cheatham, Vic Dickenson, Danny Barker, Milt Hinton, Mal Waldron. . . . “We shall not see their likes again.”
In 1944 she recorded “Lover Man,” a song that had been written especially for her. Although the song’s lyrics describe a woman who has never known love (“I long to try something I never had”), its theme — a woman longing for a missing lover — and its refrain, “Lover man, oh, where can you be?”, struck a chord in war-time America and the record became one of Holiday’s biggest hits.
In his book On the Road, Jack Kerouac wrote this about “Lover Man”:
I huddled in the cold, rainy wind and watched everything across the sad vineyards of October in the valley. My mind was filled with that great song. . . . It’s not the words so much as the great harmonic tune and the way Billie sings it, like a woman stroking her man’s hair in soft lamp-light. The winds howled. I got cold.
The rest of the decade was more turbulent for Holiday. She had started using hard drugs in the early 1940s. She married a trombonist, then had a long affair with a trumpeter who was also her drug dealer. In 1947 she split with them both, then went to prison for eight months on drug charges. By the 1950s, Holiday’s drug abuse, drinking, and relations with abusive men led to deteriorating health. She married a nasty, opportunistic failed pimp, and had an affair with Orson Welles.
Here, in a 1952 performance, she sings “God Bless the Child,” one of her signature tunes, with Count Basie:
Her later years found her touring a great deal. She packed Carnegie Hall. She played sold-out performances in London. Her voice became more fragile, but it never lost the edge that had always made it so distinctive.
On May 31, 1959, she was taken to Metropolitan Hospital in New York suffering from liver and heart disease. On July 12, she was placed under house arrest at the hospital for possession, despite evidence suggesting the drugs may have been planted on her. Holiday remained under police guard at the hospital until she died from cirrhosis of the liver on July 17. In the final years of her life, she had been progressively swindled out of her earnings, and she died with only seventy cents in the bank.
In this final clip, made less than five months before she died, she sings, “Please Don’t Talk About Me”: