Kyrle Probus Club
   of Ross-on-Wye


Billie - 1st November 2012


THE life of jazz singer Billie Holiday was the subject of the talk from guest speaker Brian Read at Kyrle Probus Club’s recent meeting. 

Brian said many felt that Billie Holiday was one of the greatest ever jazz singers and he was in that camp. She was born Eleanora Fagan in April 1915 and had a difficult childhood. She was left in the care of others while her mother worked and at the age of six, she was left deeply traumatised when her great-grandmother died while holding Billie in her arms. 

In early 1929, she joined her mother in Harlem and after flirting briefly with prostitution, started singing, taking her professional name from Billie Dove, an actress and Clarence Holiday, a musician and her probable father. 

In 1934, she sang with Benny Goodman and also tenor saxophonist Lester Young, with whom she had a special rapport. In 1937-38, Bille sang with the big bands of Count Basie, an all black band and with Artie Shaw which was an all white band.  This was a time of racial tension and she was heckled when touring the deep South with Shaw. Back in New York she met racial prejudice when she was not allowed to use the front entrance of the Lincoln Hotel. 

She got a job at Café Society where she sang the famous ‘Strange Fruits’, a controversial song, based on a poem by a Jewish schoolteacher about a lynching. Her popularity increased after recording this. But at the height of her singing power, she started drinking and taking drugs. 

In 1946, she worked in her only major film opposite Louis Armonstrong, but it was not a great success, the best thing about it being Holiday’s singing. 

Under the influence of alcohol and drugs, her performances began to go down hill. In 1954 she toured Europe, including London, where 6,000 attended her concert at the Albert Hall. Her performances continued to decline however. She collapsed on stage in May 1959 and died in July the same year at the age of 44. 

Brian illustrated his talk with recordings with some of Billie Holiday’s iconic songs, such as ‘Strange Fruits’, ‘Fine and Mellow’ and ‘My Man Don’t Love Me, He Treats Me Oh So Bad’, which he said could sum up the Billie Holiday story.


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