Here at the Verve Music Group we are fortunate and honored to have so many of Billie Holiday's classic recordings in our jazz catalog. Billie's recordings from Commodore, Decca, and Verve all reside here.
Billie Holiday (1915-59) was one of jazz’s greatest song stylists. Her ability to make a song her own by imposing her personality on it in an era when most singers remained faithful to
the composer’s lead sheet anticipated many vocalists as stylistically diverse as Frank Sinatra and, in a later generation, Joni Mitchell.
She was born Eleanora Harris in Philadelphia to teenage parents. Her mother, Sadie Harris,
raised her in Baltimore while working as a domestic servant. Her father, Clarence Holiday,
was a professional musician who visited her on occasion but wasn’t around much while she was growing up. She was a problem child with constant truancy problems, and at the age
of nine she was sent to a Catholic home for wayward girls for several months.
When she was in her middle teens she moved to New York. She changed her name to
Billie Holiday in the late 1920s when she was working one of her first club jobs.
Louis Armstrong was an inevitable early influence, as was Bessie Smith, but by the
time she first recorded she sounded like no one else.
In 1933 John Hammond, a wealthy jazz lover with record company connections,
produced her first record date. By 1935 she had become a regular in a series of informal
recording sessions organized by Hammond and pianist Teddy Wilson, using leading
players and singers from whatever big bands were in town. By the following year she
had begun to record under her own name as well. She did brief stints with the big bands
of Count Basie (1938) and Artie Shaw (1939), but band singing didn’t suit her temperament.
More important to her career development was an engagement in 1939 at Café Society,
one of the first integrated nightclubs in New York. She attracted a sophisticated crowd
that was affluent and politically liberal — the perfect setting for her to introduce "Strange Fruit", an anti-lynching song a generation ahead of the protest hits of the Vietnam War
era. It became a signature piece for her, but it also signified a change in artistic direction
in another way. On her earlier recordings, Holiday had been used much like a horn, taking her solo after the opening instrumental chorus. Now the instrumental and vocal roles were reversed, with an occasional brief horn or piano solo in the middle of her vocal performance.
In 1943 Holiday signed a contract with Decca Records, The resulting recordings were more
pop-oriented then her previous output, surrounding her with large string-laden orchestras.
This period marked her peak as a vocalist from a commercial point of view. Unfortunately, her drug use and unstable love relationships were beginning to undermine her career, stunting her chances of broad acceptance. And many jazz aficionados longed for her to return to making the type of jazz-oriented records she had made in the 1930s.
In 1952 Holiday began a five-year association on record with jazz impresario Norman Granz, who put her in the studio with compatible musicians, often from his Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe. By now her voice was showing wear and tear from the years of hard living, but her true talent had always had been in the filtering of a song through her personality and experience, and plenty of both show through in the series of recordings she made for Granz.
In early 1958 Holiday recorded the album Lady in Satin with Ray Ellis’s orchestra. Her
voice was almost completely gone, but expressively the album is one of her finest. Holiday’s
health continued to decline, and in the spring of 1959 she was taken to a hospital for treatment of cirrhosis of the liver and malnutrition. Five days before her death she was arrested in her hospital bed on narcotics charges.
The facts of Billie Holiday’s life are tragic to say the least, but in her recordings she
made art out of that life.
Excerpted from Ken Burns’ Jazz: The Definitive Billie Holiday (Verve)
(Photo credits: The Verve Music Group)