[x_pullquote cite= »Billie Holiday » type= »left »]“I’ve been told that nobody sings the word « hunger » like I do. Or the word « love. »[/x_pullquote]
Something was broken inside that woman, and you could tell by the way that she sang about it. The voice was old, thousands of years old. I had to wait for some years in order to musically mature and enjoy all the subtle nuances in Billie’s voice. I sat one Sunday afternoon listening to ‘Gloomy Sunday’, the song that was originally composed and poeticized by two Hungarians in despair. It was the saddest thing I have ever heard. ‘Strange Fruit’ was another revelation, and by the time I listened to ‘I’m a Fool to Want You’ I was hooked. I got Billie’s voice vibrating along my spine. It echoed inside of me. I was seventeen or eighteen back then. I’m twenty-two today and the magic in that woman’s voice still enchants me. If despair were a black woman in satin with gardenia in her hair, she would definitely have to be Billie Holiday.
Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan) was born April 7, 1915. She was what religious people would call a “bastard”. It was a typical story for many teenage girls. Thirteen-years-old Sarah Julia “Sadie” Fagan fell under the spell of sixteen-years-old Clarence Holiday. Nine months later, Sadie gave birth to a baby girl. Clarence didn’t care for Billie or her mother. He deserted the family and left to seek a career as a jazz banjo player and guitarist. Clarence, who served Uncle Sam in World War I, fell ill with a lung disorder while touring Texas. It was the result of being exposed to mustard gas during the war. Because he was black, Clarence was refused medical treatment in a local Texan hospital. As a result, the lung disorder developed into pneumonia. Clarence Holiday died shortly after in 1937 at the age of 39.
When Sarah’s pregnancy became visible, her parents kicked her out of their house. With no support from anyone or any place to go, Sarah asked her married half-sister, Eva Miller, to take care of Eleanora. At the age of 19, Sarah turned her back on Baltimore with all its humiliation and dark past and left for Philadelphia in pursuit of a new life, a new future, a new destiny.
For the first ten years of her life, Billie Holiday didn’t see much of her mother. The latter was slaving her youth in transportation jobs and other menial tasks, earning very little. Thus, Billie, always suffering from the absence of the mother, was left to be raised by an endless list of relatives. Even as a child, Billie seemed to be nothing but trouble for everybody: her mother, the relatives and the school. Due to her truancy, the juvenile court decided on January 5, 1925 to send Billie to a Catholic reform school called the House of the Good Shepherd. Two distinctly different things happened to Billie while staying there. First, her baptismal on March 19, 1925, and second, the sexual molestation that Billie was subject to from the other girls in the Catholic school, which can explain her later bisexuality. On October 3, 1925, Billie’s mother opened a restaurant in her house, and she needed the help of her daughter. Billie, eleven by then, joined forces with her mother in order to establish a business of their own and be the masters of their fates.
One December day, Sarah entered her house to find out a neighbor by the name of Wilbur Rich trying to rape her daughter. Rich was arrested and sentenced to three months in jail. As for Billie, she was sent once again to the House of the Good Shepherd. When she got out of there, Billie and her mother saw that a change of location was needed. New York was their destination. Harlem proved to be a tough place for two black women in search for life. How can they earn a living in the mean streets of New York? Well, they became prostitutes. At fourteen years old, Billie Holiday was just another piece of flesh sold for five dollars. The life of whoredom did not last for long for Billie and her mother. They were soon arrested and jailed. After being released, Billie sought refuge and salvation in singing in nightclubs.
When John Hammond heard Billie singing in a Harlem nightclub, he knew that there was something worthwhile in her voice. He also knew that the path for both of them wasn’t paved with jazz gold. A lot of hard work and perseverance was needed. The hard work paid. In 1935, twenty years-old Billie Holiday signed her first recording contract with Brunswick Records, and the rest is jazz history.
Billie lacked the sophistication and precision a formal music education would have given her. Instead, she went her own way, improvising abundantly and imitating the jazz instrumentalists she worked with and adored. “I can’t stand to sing the same song the same way two nights in succession, let alone two years or ten years. If you can, then it ain’t music, it’s close-order drill or exercise or yodeling or something, not music.” The French actress Jeanne Moreau said about Billie’s voice “She could express more emotion in one chorus than most actresses can in three acts.
The 1940’s saw the fall and decline of Billie Holiday. It was the beginning of the end. Drug abuse, prison, and a series of abusive relationships and alcoholism were all plaguing Billie. Both the woman and the singer were slowly obliterating. The voice started to wither. In fact, it was all gone by the time she released her final album, Lady In Satin in 1958. She was a masochist and she had to try every poison so she can flame the fire of her art. Pain was essential to her. You can’t sing about broken love if you’re not broken yourself, she seemed to say. She ran into men who beat her all the time. She drowned herself in alcohol and danced a mortal dance with heroin. Self-destruction gave her the gift but it also took her life. By the time she died, Billie, who used to make up to a thousand dollars each week, had only seventy-five cents in her bank account and the ghostwriter of her autobiography by her bedside. The priest had given her the last rites moments earlier. Now, only a grotesque sketch of a skeleton, a memory of a woman who was once great lay in a bed awaiting the final darkness to fall.
[x_blockquote cite= »Rita Dove » type= »center »]Billie Holiday’s burned voice had as many shadows as lights, a mournful candelabra against a sleek piano, the gardenia her signature under that ruined face.[/x_blockquote]
Holiday breathed her last on 17 July, 1959. She died of cirrhosis of the liver. She was 44 years old.