Billie Holiday Women’s T-Shirt
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Billie Holiday – Strange fruit – HD
Eleanora Fagan (April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959), professionally known as Billie Holiday, was an American jazz singer with a career spanning nearly thirty years. Nicknamed “Lady Day” by her friend and music partner Lester Young, Holiday had a seminal influence on jazz music and pop singing. Her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo. She was known for her vocal delivery and improvisational skills.
After a turbulent childhood, Holiday began singing in nightclubs in Harlem, where she was heard by the producer John Hammond, who commended her voice. She signed a recording contract with Brunswick in 1935. Collaborations with Teddy Wilson yielded the hit “What a Little Moonlight Can Do“, which became a jazz standard. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Holiday had mainstream success on labels such as Columbia and Decca. By the late 1940s, however, she was beset with legal troubles and drug abuse. After a short prison sentence, she performed at a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall, but her reputation deteriorated because of her drug and alcohol problems.
She was a successful concert performer throughout the 1950s with two further sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall. Due to personal struggles and an altered voice, her final recordings were met with mixed reaction, but were mild commercial successes. Her final album, Lady in Satin, was released in 1958. Holiday died of cirrhosis on July 17, 1959.
She won four Grammy Awards, all of them posthumously, for Best Historical Album. She was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1973. Lady Sings the Blues, a film about her life, starring Diana Ross, was released in 1972. She is the primary character in the play (later made into a film) Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill; the role was originated by Reenie Upchurch in 1986, and was played by Audra McDonald on Broadway and in the film. In 2017 Holiday was inducted into the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame.
1939: “Strange Fruit” and Commodore Records
Holiday was recording for Columbia in the late 1930s when she was introduced to “Strange Fruit“, a song based on a poem about lynching written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx. Meeropol used the pseudonym “Lewis Allan” for the poem, which was set to music and performed at teachers’ union meetings. It was eventually heard by Barney Josephson, the proprietor of Café Society, an integrated nightclub in Greenwich Village, who introduced it to Holiday. She performed it at the club in 1939, with some trepidation, fearing possible retaliation. She later said that the imagery of the song reminded her of her father’s death and that this played a role in her resistance to performing it.
For her performance of “Strange Fruit” at the Café Society, she had waiters silence the crowd when the song began. During the song’s long introduction, the lights dimmed and all movement had to cease. As Holiday began singing, only a small spotlight illuminated her face. On the final note, all lights went out, and when they came back on, Holiday was gone.
Holiday said her father, Clarence Holiday, was denied medical treatment for a fatal lung disorder because of racial prejudice, and that singing “Strange Fruit” reminded her of the incident. “It reminds me of how Pop died, but I have to keep singing it, not only because people ask for it, but because twenty years after Pop died the things that killed him are still happening in the South”, she wrote in her autobiography.
When Holiday’s producers at Columbia found the subject matter too sensitive, Milt Gabler agreed to record it for his Commodore Records label on April 20, 1939. “Strange Fruit” remained in her repertoire for twenty years. She recorded it again for Verve. The Commodore release did not get any airplay, but the controversial song sold well, though Gabler attributed that mostly to the record’s other side, “Fine and Mellow“, which was a jukebox hit. “The version I recorded for Commodore”, Holiday said of “Strange Fruit”, “became my biggest-selling record.” “Strange Fruit” was the equivalent of a top-twenty hit in the 1930s.
Holiday’s popularity increased after “Strange Fruit”. She received a mention in Time magazine. “I open Café Society as an unknown,” Holiday said. “I left two years later as a star. I needed the prestige and publicity all right, but you can’t pay rent with it.” She soon demanded a raise from her manager, Joe Glaser.
Holiday returned to Commodore in 1944, recording songs she made with Teddy Wilson in the 1930s, including “I Cover the Waterfront“, “I’ll Get By“, and “He’s Funny That Way”. She also recorded new songs that were popular at the time, including, “My Old Flame”, “How Am I to Know?”, “I’m Yours”, and “I’ll Be Seeing You“, a number one hit for Bing Crosby. She also recorded her version of “Embraceable You“, which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2005.
1940–47: Commercial success
Holiday’s mother Sadie, nicknamed “The Duchess”, opened a restaurant called Mom Holiday’s. She used money from her daughter while playing dice with members of the Count Basie band, with whom she toured in the late 1930s. “It kept Mom busy and happy and stopped her from worrying and watching over me”, Holiday said. Fagan began borrowing large amounts from Holiday to support the restaurant. Holiday obliged but soon fell on hard times herself. “I needed some money one night and I knew Mom was sure to have some”, she said. “So I walked in the restaurant like a stockholder and asked. Mom turned me down flat. She wouldn’t give me a cent.” The two argued, and Holiday shouted angrily, “God bless the child that’s got his own”, and stormed out. With Arthur Herzog, Jr., a pianist, she wrote a song based on the lyric, “God Bless the Child“, and added music.
“God Bless the Child” became Holiday’s most popular and most covered record. It reached number 25 on the charts in 1941 and was third in Billboard‘s songs of the year, selling over a million records. In 1976, the song was added to the Grammy Hall of Fame. Herzog claimed Holiday contributed only a few lines to the lyrics. He said she came up with the line “God bless the child” from a dinner conversation the two had had.
On June 24, 1942, Holiday recorded “Trav’lin Light” with Paul Whiteman for a new label, Capitol Records. Because she was under contract to Columbia, she used the pseudonym “Lady Day”. The song reached number 23 on the pop charts and number one on the R&B charts, then called the Harlem Hit Parade.
In September 1943, Life magazine wrote, “She has the most distinct style of any popular vocalist and is imitated by other vocalists.”
Milt Gabler, in addition to owning Commodore Records, became an A&R man for Decca Records. He signed Holiday to Decca on August 7, 1944, when she was 29. Her first Decca recording was “Lover Man” (number 16 Pop, number 5 R&B), one of her biggest hits. The success and distribution of the song made Holiday a staple in the pop community, leading to solo concerts, rare for jazz singers in the late 40s. Gabler said, “I made Billie a real pop singer. That was right in her. Billie loved those songs.” Jimmy Davis and Roger “Ram” Ramirez, the song’s writers, had tried to interest Holiday in the song. In 1943, a flamboyant male torch singer, Willie Dukes, began singing “Lover Man” on 52nd Street. Because of his success, Holiday added it to her shows. The record’s flip side was “No More“, one of her favorites.
Holiday asked Gabler for strings on the recording. Such arrangements were associated with Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. “I went on my knees to him,” Holiday said. “I didn’t want to do it with the ordinary six pieces. I begged Milt and told him I had to have strings behind me.” On October 4, 1944, Holiday entered the studio to record “Lover Man”, saw the string ensemble and walked out. The musical director, Toots Camarata, said Holiday was overwhelmed with joy. She may also have wanted strings to avoid comparisons between her commercially successful early work with Teddy Wilson and everything produced afterwards. Her 1930s recordings with Wilson used a small jazz combo; recordings for Decca often involved strings.
A month later, in November, Holiday returned to Decca to record “That Ole Devil Called Love“, “Big Stuff”, and “Don’t Explain“. She wrote “Don’t Explain” after she caught her husband, Jimmy Monroe, with lipstick on his collar.
Holiday did not make any more records until August 1945, when she recorded “Don’t Explain” for a second time, changing the lyrics “I know you raise Cain” to “Just say you’ll remain” and changing “You mixed with some dame” to “What is there to gain?” Other songs recorded were “Big Stuff”, “What Is This Thing Called Love?“, and “You Better Go Now”. Ella Fitzgerald named “You Better Go Now” her favorite recording of Holiday’s. “Big Stuff” and “Don’t Explain” were recorded again but with additional strings and a viola.
In 1946, Holiday recorded “Good Morning Heartache“. Although the song failed to chart, she sang it in live performances; three live recordings are known.
In September 1946, Holiday began her only major film, New Orleans, in which she starred opposite Louis Armstrong and Woody Herman. Plagued by racism and McCarthyism, producer Jules Levey and script writer Herbert Biberman were pressed to lessen Holiday’s and Armstrong’s roles to avoid the impression that black people created jazz. The attempts failed because in 1947 Biberman was listed as one of the Hollywood Ten and sent to jail.
Several scenes were deleted from the film. “They had taken miles of footage of music and scenes,” Holiday said, but “none of it was left in the picture. And very damn little of me. I know I wore a white dress for a number I did… and that was cut out of the picture.” She recorded “The Blues Are Brewin'” for the film’s soundtrack. Other songs included in the movie are “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” and “Farewell to Storyville”.
Holiday’s drug addictions were a problem on the set. She earned more than a thousand dollars a week from club ventures but spent most of it on heroin. Her lover, Joe Guy, traveled to Hollywood while Holiday was filming and supplied her with drugs. Guy was banned from the set when he was found there by Holiday’s manager, Joe Glaser.
By the late 1940s, Holiday had begun recording a number of slow, sentimental ballads. Metronome expressed its concerns in 1946 about “Good Morning Heartache”, saying, “there’s a danger that Billie’s present formula will wear thin, but up to now it’s wearing well.” The New York Herald Tribune reported of a concert in 1946 that her performance had little variation in melody and no change in tempo.
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