Music critic John Bush once wrote that Billie Holiday changed the art of American pop vocals forever. It was not an achievement that came easily. Born in 1915 a black woman in a society whose blatant racism is almost unthinkable today, she was abandoned by her father and again by her stepfather. Her mother gave her little support, being absent for long periods while working for passenger railroads, and being ejected from her own parents’ home when she became pregnant outside marriage. After Holliday was raped by a neighbor at the age of eleven, she and her mother moved in with and worked for a madam in Harlem named Florence Williams; both mother and daughter worked as prostitutes, Holliday being only thirteen years old. But it was also about this time that Holliday first heard the music of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, and not long after this that she began to perform.
A life lived like a blues song
She was born Elanora Fagin and chose the performing name Billie Holiday from the actress Billie Dove whom she admired and from Clarence Holliday, a musician and probably her biological father. She began to sing in Harlem nightclubs, notably Covan’s on West 132nd Street, where she was discovered by record producer John Hammond. Hammond arranged for Holliday to record songs with Bennie Goodman, and she was soon recording under her own name. Sometime during this period in her career, Holliday became a heroin addict. Her success mounted from this point in the music business and she became one of the most important vocalists in the history of jazz, but on a personal level she never managed to have a successful relationship. She was also in a constant battle with the racism and sexism entrenched in the music business. I found Donald Clarke’s Billie Holiday biography Wishing On the Moon well-researched, well-organized, beautifully illustrated, and revealing. This is a must for jazz fans in general and fans of Billie Holiday in particular.