Billie Holiday, also affectionately known as Lady Day, was an icon of a changing America, memorable for a whole lot more than the blues so often bound to her name. Besides the expertly delivered, harrowingly sad jazz staples such as ‘Strange Fruit’, Billie rather epitomized a sensational lifestyle between extreme hedonism and extreme suffering. Merry Chandler takes a look at a life lived in extremes.

In 1915, Billie was born Eleanora Fagan to a thirteen year old runaway mother in Philadelphia. By all accounts, the next few years were a mess, a now legendary cycle of violence, exploitation and abuse in just about every way possible, which defined the singers early years and would serve as the catalyst for some of the world’s most heartbreakingly cathartic jazz standards, delivered by its most empathetic female icon.

By the early Thirties Billie had established herself as a formidable talent on the Harlem nightclub scene, recording with legendary bandleader Benny Goodman. Her timing was great as it placed her at the forefront of the definitive Swing Era, providing all-American comfort during a tumultuous time between the wars and during the economic devastation of the Great Depression. Thanks to all this, Miss Fagan was set to become a household name, and she picked a memorable pseudonym combining two contrasting influences dear to her – the Twenties Ziegfeld girl and actress Billie Dove who she admired as a performer, and the man presumed to be her father, Clarence Holiday, representing her troubled roots.

In her early career she had traveled with Artie Shaw’s band, and the two had broken a huge social taboo as for the first time a black female singer performed with a white male band on stage. This was just too much for the dominant conservative sensibilities of the time and Billie was forced to pull out mid-tour following the humiliation of having to enter each venue through the back entrance, receiving death threats, and being legally barred from drinking with her fellow band members after shows. However, it set a precedent of courage and forward thinking for musicians willing to integrate for decades to come.

2At the initial height of her fame, Billie was able to take the traditional Thirties staple looks and with her striking and unusual physical features carve out a memorable presence, with high arched brows, glowing skin, red lips and her all important trademark white gardenias contrasting brilliantly as a focal point to set off her dark hair. Onstage she often accentuated the Thirties silhouette with long black dresses and simple pearl necklaces.

In reality her life must have been far from the all-consuming doom and gloom synonymous with her name and music, rather she comprised a fascinating life of ups and downs, glowing career highs and devastating personal lows. By the time the Forties drew to a close, Lady Day was far from being famous for just her singing. The years had seen her grow from a Harlem-based musical sensation to international star, the frivolity of the celebrity lifestyle and the comparatively lax drug laws of the preceding era leaving her at the centre of addiction and relationship scandals.

Her only marriage, to Mafia ‘Enforcer’ Louis McKay set a precedent for disaster. Her supposedly lesbian liaisons with infamously care-free party-girl and actress Tallulah Bankhead resulted in controversy and gossip. Unfortunately Billie, who was known on the celebrity circuit to have quite a thing for hard drugs, was imprisoned for ten months on narcotics charges in 1947. Refusing to sing a note throughout her whole incarceration she drew from her unique strength to withstand tragedy and in March 1948 finally emerged to engage in a critically acclaimed Carnegie Hall concert just eleven days later. To her own surprise, she was welcomed with open arms to an adoring public once again.

foto-holiday-billie1This is not to say Lady Day was rid of the blues forever. Over the next eleven years of her life more drugs arrests followed, and heartbreakingly at aged just 44, Billie passed away as the victim of liver and heart disease. Disturbingly this once vivacious star famed for her beauty exited the world emaciated and spiritless, under arrest with police officers stationed at the door by her hospital bed and the remainder of her once huge fortune whittled down to just $750 at the hands of record company swindlers.

Her legend was now solidified, and, far from being remembered purely for drugs and despair, the incredible strength of the woman who contributed so much to the musical consciousness of the Thirties, Forties and Fifties was celebrated.

Her influence on today’s music and style icons is still going strong, her distinctively sultry voice and hauntingly soulful delivery being major influences on modern jazz music, reflected recognisably in the likes of Amy Winehouse, Madeleine Peyroux, Macy Gray and a plethora of others.

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