Why you should care
Because she transformed personal pain into universal emotion.
In a rare televised performance, a struggling Billie Holiday stands next to a poster of herself on the stage of the Apollo Theater in New York’s Harlem neighborhood and delivers an astonishing take on the 1920s classic “My Man.” With the camera zooming in uncomfortably close, she sings a song that speaks openly of her love for a man who has other women and who physically assaults her as well.
“He’s not much on looks / He’s no hero out of books / But I love him,” she boldly proclaims to the accompaniment of a melancholy piano before segueing into a jazzy, strutting flourish. Then, with sweat streaming down her forehead in the hot spotlight, Holiday further testifies: “He isn’t true / He beats me too / What can I do?”
The performance of the song on the unseasonably warm evening of May 24, 1950, was an amazingly honest airing of an issue that was usually kept behind closed doors in Holiday’s time. And, in the case of the singer known as Lady Day, the lyrics were not artistic hyperbole — she had lived them. Throughout her all-too-short life, Holiday’s relationships with men were often violent and dysfunctional.
I’ve been told that nobody sings the word ‘hunger’ like I do. Or the word ‘love.’
Angela Davis, the Black political activist, intellectual and author, devoted an entire chapter to Holiday’s love songs in her 1999 book, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism. Davis hails songs like “My Man” as a stirring, forward-looking examples of Holiday’s “ownership” of the problem of domestic battery and a statement of Black feminism. “The most frequent stance assumed by the women in these songs is independence and assertiveness — indeed defiance — bordering on and sometimes erupting into violence,” Davis wrote.
Yes, there are more-powerful performances in the Billie Holiday canon. “Strange Fruit” (1939) remains her biggest commercial single, peaking at 16 on the pop charts, an impressive achievement considering it details the horrors of lynching. “God Bless the Child,” written in 1939 by Holiday and Arthur Herzog Jr., stands as her signature recording, conjuring up the larger-than-life singer in her trademark gardenia and pearls. And the ubiquitous “Good Morning Heartache,” which she first recorded in 1946, has been covered by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to the Wu-Tang Clan’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard.
Yet there is something emotionally pure about “My Man.” Years of drinking and taking drugs eventually reduced her once expansive voice into a rough, hard instrument. “All of that comes from the blues,” says author and journalist Michael A. Gonzales, who has written about the enormous impact of Holiday. “Billie was not considered strictly a blues singer because at times she was singing with orchestras and working within the jazz idiom. She was Bessie Smith with strings. And, in the same way that Bessie was singing about ‘No-good man,’ that pain was also a part of Billie’s voice.”
Born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915, Holiday took her stage name from film star Billie Dove and her jazz guitarist father, Clarence Holiday. At 12, she dropped out of school and moved with her mother from Baltimore to Harlem, where she scored a job singing at a local nightclub. Holiday made her recording debut with Benny Goodman on the 1933 classic “Riffin’ the Scotch” and her Apollo debut in 1935 at age 19 before touring with jazz giants Count Basie and Artie Shaw. In 1937 alone, she had 16 charting songs and scored her first No. 1 hit as a solo act with “Carelessly.” “I’ve been told that nobody sings the word ‘hunger’ like I do. Or the word ‘love,’” she wrote in Lady Sings the Blues, her frank and controversial best-selling 1956 memoir.
The 1940s saw Holiday reel off a string of hits, but her career came to an abrupt halt on May 16, 1947, when she was busted for drugs in her New York apartment. She served a year and a day at a federal rehab facility in West Virginia, but the real penalty came when New York City revoked her cabaret card, which meant she could no longer perform in city venues that sold liquor.
And yet there were more triumphs, including the Apollo showcase and her breathtaking performance on Nov. 10, 1956, at New York’s Carnegie Hall. “She was erect and beautiful; poised and smiling,” wrote The New York Times’ Gilbert Millstein in the liner notes for the album The Essential Billie Holiday: Carnegie Hall Concert Recorded Live.
And then there was Holiday’s swan song — the historic CBS television special The Sound of Jazz, broadcast on Dec. 8, 1957, two years before her death at age 44. Dressed in a pale wool dress, Holiday looked worryingly thin. But when she launched into the bluesy “Fine and Mellow” — backed by a murderers’ row of jazz immortals that included Coleman Hawkins and her old friend and collaborator Lester Young on tenor saxes, Milt Hinton on bass and Roy Eldridge on trumpet — all was forgotten for the next nine-plus minutes.
“My man don’t love me / He treats me oh so mean,” Holiday moaned with the impeccable timing of a jazz instrumentalist. It’s at that moment you hear the future: Etta James, Nina Simone, Cassandra Wilson, Erykah Badu, Amy Winehouse, Norah Jones, Andra Day … Billie Holiday lives on.
- Nickname: Lady Day
- Vitals: b. April 7, 1915, Philadelphia – d. July 17, 1959, New York City
- Instrument: Vocals
- Standards: “Strange Fruit” (1939), “God Bless the Child” (1941, first recording), “Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?)” (1944)
- Quirks: Never learned to read music; first wore a gardenia to cover a patch of hair burned in a pre-performance accident with a curling iron — and a signature style was born.
- Another take: Lady Sings the Blues, starring Diana Ross and directed by Sidney J. Furie (1972)