Brisbane based contemporary singer Kelsey Giarola is one of Australia’s up and coming vocalists. Specialising in jazz, soul, funk, pop and self-original stylings, Kelsey will be paying tribute to one of the most iconic Jazz names of all time, Billie Holiday.
Behind the Iconic Voice of Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday has one of those voices that make you lean a little closer to the radio, instantly recognisable, her voice waivers and drips with pain and emotion, pulling you in. Her childhood was rough and life as an adult wasn’t much better, Billie was one of the few singers who truly gave into her emotions and showed her vulnerability through song.
Born Eleanora Fagan on April 7th, 1915 to a thirteen-year-old mother and fifteen-year-old father. Her dad, a jazz guitarist and banjo player, was never present in her life and even during her success she avoided crossing his path in music circles, but it was his name, Clarence Holiday, that she later took. Her mum, a child herself, often left Billie with relatives and Billie spent her life struggling with feelings of abandonment, low self-worth, and depression. At just ten years old she was sent to a catholic correctional school after admitting to being raped. She was freed two years later and moved to Brooklyn with her mum, where it wasn’t long until she turned to prostitution to provide an income and began drinking heavily.
At 18, life finally started to look up for Billie. With no professional training she began singing in clubs in Harlem where she was spotted by producer John Hammond of Colombia Records who arranged for her to record a couple of songs with Benny Goodman, whilst they weren’t successful, it was the start of her career. Two years later Billie teamed up with Teddy Wilson and they simply clicked. From 1935-42, Billie recorded some of the best music of her career featuring the who’s who of jazz.
During the late 30s, Billie partnered up with tenor Lester Young and trumpeter Buck Clayton and produced some incredible music over the next few years. It was Young who coined Billie’s nickname “Lady Day”, so given for her elegance.
In 1937 Billie began touring with Count Basie, one of the first instances of a black woman touring with a white group, but promoters and producers began objecting to her due to both her race and unorthodox singing style. It wasn’t long after quitting the band that Billie recorded the haunting anti-racism song that catapulted her career, Strange Fruit. To record the song, Billie had to do so with another record label and once released, the song was banned by many radio stations.
Billie continued recording with Colombia until 1942 and her second big hit God Bless the Child was released with them before she moved to Decca in 1944 where she released her third hit Lover Man. Some of her most treasured songs were recorded at Decca, but whilst her career was at it’s peak, by the mid-40s her personal life was in crisis.
Billie was a chronic drinker, heavy smoker, and a user of both marijuana and later heroin. As if she hadn’t had enough trauma in her younger years, Billie married Louis McKay, her manager, sometimes pimp, and incredibly violent man who often beat her so badly her ribs would need to be tapped before she stepped on stage. It was when she finally got the strength to leave McKay that her world began to unravel.
The racist Federal Bureau of Narcotics were on a witch hunt and they wanted Billie Holiday. The rumours of Billie’s drug addiction were rife and when McKay was approached he was more than happy to give up enough details to bust Billie and she was sentenced to a year in prison where and forced to go cold turkey.
Once released she was stripped of her cabaret licence meaning she could not perform anywhere alcohol was served, meaning all jazz clubs in America. Even after this, the bureau didn’t let her be and a year later charged her with possession again, although Billie swore she was clean, showed no signs of addiction or withdrawal and that the drugs had been planted. She was found not guilty at trial, but that was the end of her career.
When Billie was 44 years old she collapsed and was taken to hospital and found to have major health problems from chronic drinking and smoking, plus she had started using heroin again, and it was here that the police came after her again. She was handcuffed to the bed and she died alone and suffering, but this time she couldn’t sing out her pain.