Celebrating creative black trailblazers for #BHM; meet…
Name: Billie Holiday (born Elenora Harris)
Born: April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959
Creative Discipline: Singer/Songwriter
Known for: Her influence on jazz and pop singing. Her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo.
Billie Holiday had a difficult childhood and frequently skipped school, her truancy resulted in her being brought before the juvenile court on January 5, 1925 when she was not yet 10. She was sent to The House of the Good Shepherd, a Catholic reform school. She was baptized there on March 19, 1925 and after nine months in care, was "paroled" on October 3, 1925 to her mother, who had opened a restaurant called the East Side Grill, where she and Holiday worked long hours. By the age of 11, the girl had dropped out of school.
Holiday's mother became a prostitute and, within a matter of days of arriving in New York, Holiday, who had not yet turned fourteen, also became a prostitute for $5 a time. On May 2, 1929, the house was raided, and Holiday and her mother were sent to prison. After spending some time in a workhouse, her mother was released in July, followed by Holiday in October, at the age of 14.
In Harlem she started singing in various night clubs. Holiday took her professional pseudonym from Billie Dove, an actress she admired, and the musician Clarence Holiday, her probable father.
By the end of 1932 at the age of 17, Billie Holiday replaced the singer Monette Moore at a club called Covan's on West 132nd Street. The producer John Hammond, who loved Monette Moore's singing and had come to hear her, first heard Holiday in early 1933. Hammond arranged for Holiday to make her recording debut, at age 18, in November 1933 with Benny Goodman, singing two songs: "Your Mother's Son-In-Law" and "Riffin' the Scotch," the latter being her first hit. "Son-in-Law" sold 300 copies, but "Riffin' the Scotch," released on November 11, sold 5,000 copies.
Whilst Louis Armstrong changed the Jazz trumpet, Holiday changed Jazz vocals. Her delivery – the way she would play with the phrasing and tempo, singing behind the beat for example – was so radically original that it spawned an entire generation of singers in her wake, including people like Frank Sinartra, who credited Holiday as a major influence. But, Holiday’s importance cuts deeper than music.
First and foremost she was a strong female presence in an era where black women were mostly forced to occupy the lowest rung of society. Holiday, along with other legends like Ella Fitzgerald, was a different kind of woman – one who could command a room and demand respect with the sheer power of her talent and personality. But, unlike Fitzgerald, Holiday was also political, singing a song that foreshadowed the Civil Rights Movement, “Strange Fruit”.
Article by Lucy G / 15th October 2012
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