In that superb film, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, shyster lawyer Louis Calhern is birated by his neurotic wife for consorting with criminals. "Why do you deal with those awful people?" she demands.
"Oh, I don't know" replies Calhern softly. "There's nothing so different about them. After all, crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor."
And so we cut to my own "B" movie scenario where, long ago, a blonde of my acquaintance impaled me with her baby blues and demanded to know why I listened to "that awful woman. The blonde, an operatic soprano of some ability, was a tightly packed time bomb of neuroses and antisocial tendencies, and in Billie's voice, full of pain and unfulfilled yearnings, she recognized her own doppelganger and it terrified her. On one side of the mirror was a respectable, middle-class WASP; on the other a street-hardened black woman with a criminal record, and all that separated them was circumstance.
No, there was nothing very different about Billie and the rest of humanity, but that modicum was enough to make some of us want to kill in order to preserve the status quo.
Billie's curse was that she was utterly out of sync with her time: a tigress with the soul of a fawn; a pussycat with fangs; ill-equipped to deal with the world of the 1930s and 1940s, as a child with an abnormal chromosome count.
Billie Holiday was born Eleanor Holiday in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The most likely date is April 17th, 1915, but this has yet to be verified. Her parents, Sadie and Clarence, were in their teens at the time: After serving in the U.S. Armed forces in WWI, Clarence became a professional musician and was good enough to hold down the guitar chair in Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra from the late 1920s, onwards. In later years he expressed his concern to John Hammond when Billie started working the New York club scene: "John, I don't want anyone to know I've got a 20-year-old daughter. They'll think I'm an old man. She was just something I stole when I was 15." In turn, Billie compensated for her father's neglect by booking just about every top New York guitarist on her record and club dates-except Clarence.
At the age of ten Billie was raped by a neighbor. He went to jail, but the law, acting on the age-old assumption that most women ask for it, sent the young wanton to a home for wayward girls where, as a punishment for a minor transgression, she was locked in a room all night with the body of a dead inmate.
A friend of her mother helped get her released two years later, and the family moved north to New Jersey and, later, to Brooklyn. It was around this time that she acquired the name Billie, bestowed on her, by her mother, who idolized silent screen star Billie Dove. It speaks volumes for the racial situation in the States at the time, that the only role model available to a young black housewife was that of a white movie. actress, but the Junoesque Miss Dove did, possess a mop of lustrous black hair.
Billie frequently accompanied her mother on her domestic jobs, although her independent nature did not take kindly to washing steps and waiting on whites. "I ain't gonna be no goddamn maid" was to become her battle cry throughout her life. It was no wonder her mother was pleased when she appeared to settle down in the employ of a cultured Harlem woman. Little did Sadie know that the house was one of the most successful brothels in the area, and Billie discovered that $20 a trick supplemented the family income far better than 15¢ a stoop. Yet she again bucked the system by refusing the advances of a man who had influence with the local police; a short jail sentence followed, and Billie was unemployed once more.
Legend has it that Billie's singing career began at Pod & Jerry's speakeasy on West 133rd Street in 1933. Desperate for a job, she auditioned as a dancer and gave such an execrable performance that the pianist, feeling sorry for her, asked her if she could sing. Billie looked at him, puzzled. In her world, singing was as natural as breathing, but she launched into a rendition of "Trav'lin All Alone," reduced the audience to tears and was hired on the spot.
All this may be true, but several musicians remember her singing at the Gray Dawn Club in Queens, in late 1930 or early 1931, with Hat Hunter's band. Many of these conflicting stories seemed to have emanated from Billie herself who tended to romanticize her life, and they were given the final stamp of authenticity by William Dufty who co-authored her autobiography Lady Sings The Blues.
The first official recognition of her talents seems to have come from John Hammond who heard her at Monette's Club and wrote in his column in the April 1933 issue of Melody Maker: "This month there has been a real find in the person of a singer named Billie Halliday (sic)... although only 18 she weighs over 200 lbs., is incredibly beautiful and sings as well as anybody I ever heard."
Another contemporary report was given by the Irish musician-critic Patrick "Spike" Hughes: "She was a tall, self-assured girl with rich goldenbrown skin, exquisitely shown off by the pale blue of her full-skirted and low-cut evening frock.... like a gypsy fiddler in a Budapest cafe she came over to your table and sang to you personally. I found her quite irresistible."
Hammond's enthusiasm spread to Benny Goodman, then one of the busiest studio musicians, and the two went to Monette's to hear her. Benny was impressed, both musically and personally and the two dated for a time, to the disapproval of both sets of families.
Late in 1933 Hammond took Billie to Columbia's studios at 55 Fifth Avenue to make a demo. Her accompanist on the date was scheduled to be Bobby Henderson, her current lover, but on the way downtown he was arrested for allegedly spitting in the subway. A frantic Hammond located Dot Hill, house pianist at Monette's, and the demo was cut.. Regrettably Columbia's files show no written 1 record of the date, no tests have ever surfaced and no one seems to remember the tune Billie sang on her recording debut.
On November 27th, 1933, she made her first commercial recording with a pick-up band led by Benny, and three weeks later she returned to cut one more title. Both sessions were A & Rd by John Hammond, and on the first date the band also recorded two sides with another jazz legend, Ethel Waters. Waters, a temperamental, paranoid woman, took an instant dislike to Billie, and to the end of their respective lives neither had a good word to say about the other.
It was to be 17 months before Billie appeared in the studio again, but her career did not stagnate. She left Monette's for the Alhambra Grill, then moved to the Hot-Cha Bar at 134th and 7th Avenue. In the spring of 1935 Ralph Cooper, MC at the Apollo Theater, dropped in after work to catch her act and recommended her to the theater's owner, Frank Schiffman. Schiffman booked her, and Cooper, touched by her vulnerability, bought her shoes and gown and rehearsed the pit band for her act. On the big night she almost blew her chance with an attack of stage fright (something she never entirely overcame); but Pigmeat Markham literally shoved her into the spotlight, where she completely captivated the notoriously tough audience.
1935 was a good year for Billie. Prohibition had been repealed, legitimate bars were springing up everywhere and the jukebox had recently been invented. John Hammond approached the executives of the American Record Corporation with a plan to produce inexpensive records for the jukebox market. Most of the proposed sessions would be on a flat fee, non-royalty basis, using publishers' stock arrangements. Hammond sold his idea, but had more trouble selling Billie and finally settled for recording her as featured vocalist under the nominal leadership of Teddy Wilson.
The first of what was to become a series of classic recordings took place on the afternoon of July 2nd, 1935, at 1776 Broadway. Music publishers had far more power then than they do now, and it was impossible for an unknown group of black musicians to obtain first-class songs; these were reserved for radio stars and hotel and society, bands. Hammond did manage to get one good number, but the rest were strictly tired fumbles in the back of a flatbed truck, and this pattern was to be repeated for the rest of the year.
Because it was the first date under Teddy Wilson's contract; Hammond wanted to avoid any accusations of sloppiness or unreliability from the ARC brass, so he assembled the musicians a day early to acclimatize them to the unfamiliar material. Wilson also sketched in some improvements to the dreary arrangements. Like early Impressionist paintings, scorned by serious critics and unwanted by the public, these unpretentious recordings now stand revealed as masterpieces.
In September 1935, two months after her first Brunswick recording session, she accepted an engagement at New York's Famous Door - a club owned by a co-operative syndicate of white musicians including Lennie Hayton, Carl Kress, Manny Klein and Jimmy Dorsey. Billie and Teddy Wilson were booked to supplement the main attraction, a Dixieland group led by trombonist George Brunis. It was not a happy association: Brunis' oafish brand of musical buffoonery attracted a like audience, and the leader himself was not noted for his liberal views on race; or anything else for that matter. Teddy Wilson, retreated further into himself while Billie verbalized her hurt. Her isolation deepened when she was informed that she was not allowed to mingle with the guests between sets or even sit at the bar; during her rest periods she was forced to hang around outside the patrons' toilets. After four days the engagement was terminated by mutual consent.
In retrospect, the policy of the club towards black artists was not abnormal for the period, but what is curious is that the owners mentioned above were all working musicians noted for their lack of-racial prejudice and willingness to work with minorities who were their peers. One can only assume that they were sleeping partners and that the actual day-today running of the club was left to a management team.
Late that same year Billie formed a business association with Joe Glaser, who had gained his business experience with the powerful Rockwell-O'Keefe Agency. A shrewd operator, Glaser realized that there were no professional artists' managers who specialized in black talent, and he decided to fill the void. Many derogatory comments have been made about Glaser over the years, but roughneck and sharpie that he was, he did have a genuine concern for the people he handled and at his best was a generous and loyal colleague. Early in 1936 he got Billie a spot in a revue at Connie's Inn which had moved downtown from Harlem to West 48th Street. Billie's big number in the show was "You Let Me Down," but soon after opening she was felled by ptomaine poisoning and replaced by Bessie Smith.
Contrary to the myths, Bessie was not a broken-down has-been trapped man archaic singing style, but was fully conversant with the newer pop songs. According to Chris Albertson, her repertoire at this time included such numbers as "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" and "I've Got A Feeling You're Fooling;" and it's tragic that she made no more recordings after 1933. Equally frustrating is the lack of information about her relationship (if any) and her professional views on the woman she replaced.
Billie's recovery placed Glaser in a dilemma. He wanted her to work the theater circuits, but her weight had ballooned to over 200 lbs., and she had to go on a crash diet. Deciding against returning her to Connie's Inn, Glaser sent her out on the road with the Jimmie Lunceford band. While she was away Teddy Wilson went into the ARC studios, and her deputy on this date was the young Ella Fitzgerald, then singing with the Chick Webb Orchestra.
Glaser had a financial interest in the Grand Terrace Ballroom in Chicago and he asked Ed Fox, who rented it from him, to feature Billie (at $75 a week) with the resident Fletcher Henderson band. Billie was overjoyed: Henderson's band was packed with top-flight Harlem musicians, both veterans and Young Turks, many of whom were personal friends of hers. But the engagement turned into a debacle.
Ed Fox was the typical species of ballroom manager at that time: coarse, crude and with no regard for the sensibilities of artists, black or white. They were a commodity to make money and the fact that they might have feelings was an irrelevancy. He took an immediate dislike td Billie, telling her that she was singing too' slow and stinking up the place. Because she wanted the date so badly she held her tongue, but after two nights of public humiliation the dam broke in his office. Fox, who was used to dealing with some of Chicago's toughest citizens; met his match as Billie turned into a raging virago and began hurling furniture at his head. She was sent back to New York, minus salary and expenses. Years later, surviving members of the Henderson band expressed regret that their leader had made no attempt to defend her, but disengagement had become Fletcher's style. A serious car accident in 1928 had caused personality changes which grew more acute as the years progressed, and towards the end-of his career as a leader he had become accustomed to allowing things to drift without a fight.
Billie got no support from Glaser, either. As her agent he took the view that she should humor the man who was paying her salary, and consequently another spectacular outburst erupted. But neither Billie nor Glaser bore grudges, and in September 1936 he got her a date at the Onyx Club with violinist Stuff Smith and his Sextet, then at the peak of their popularity with the college crowd.
On paper it looked like the ideal combination: Smith, a great jazz musician and showman, gave a fabulous stage show with his group, led by trumpeter Jonah Jones. Billie's style and personality were sharply contrasted and should have provided the ideal balance to the program. But the usually affable Smith grew increasingly jealous at what he thought was Billie's underhanded tactics of "milking the audience for applause;' although they never appeared together on stage. Finally it got to the point of "either she goes or I do," and because Smith was the bigger name, owner Joe Helbock reluctantly invoked the "ladies first" rule. Once again the Fates had played a macabre jest on Billie, just when it seemed her luck .was changing for the better.
But there was one significant event in 1936, and even if it didn't seem, particularly noteworthy at the time, it was an indication that Billie, Holiday was beginning to be taken seriously as an artist. The Wilson Brunswick records had been selling steadily, if not spectacularly, both in the States and in Europe, and ARC decided to begin a second series under the umbrella of Billie Holiday and Her Orchestra. The fact that they were to be released on the 35¢ Vocalion label instead of the 75¢ Brunswick didn't really matter, since Billie didn't receive royalties, anyway. What was balm to her severely battered ego was that she had her name in large type on the label.
She also had a new producer. John Hammond continued to oversee the Wilson sides, but ARC assigned her Vocalion dates to a young, Harvard-educated Nebraskan, Bernie Hanighen. Hanighen had been a collaborator with lyricist Johnny Mercer on a number of songs and, although none of them became a big hit, they stand out today as some of the most joyous and wittiest of Mercer's vast output. Clearly Hanighen was no ordinary man.
At the end of June, Billie went into the studio with John Hammond for, her first recording date in six months. The tunes were better than before, and two of them were outstanding; ten days later she made her first sides for Hanighen. Whether he cashed in some favors owed him by publishers will never be known, but there wasn't a dog in the four songs cut on July 10th, 1936. In September, he repeated the formula, and with Hammond convincing the song pluggers that this hoarse-voiced woman who desecrated their songs could sell records, Billie was on her way.
At the same time John Hammond was also on his way west on a talent scouting expedition. Driving south of Chicago he heard on his powerful car radio a remarkable group, led by New Jersey born William "Count" Basie; broadcasting from the Reno Club in Kansas City. Hammond had first met Basie in 1932 as a member of the Benny Moten band which was appearing at Harlem's Lafayette Theater, but their paths did not cross again until Hammond walked into the Reno Club and sat all night listening to the group. Two of the other musicians on the stand that night were tenor saxophonist Lester Young and trumpeter Wilbur "Buck" Clayton.
Young, the son of a carnival musician, was born in Woodville, Mississippi, in 1909, and spent much of his youth touring with his family. A sensitive, fey man, he had had some experience of the big time when he went to New York as the replacement for Coleman Hawkins in Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra. The sojourn was brief and disastrous: the other musicians; enamored of Hawkins' fat tone, had derided, Young's airy sound, more reminiscent of a G-melody saxophone, and had questioned his musical abilities and even his manhood. The ,already unhappy situation was further exacerbated when Fletcher's wife, a .sometime musician, offered to teach Lester to improve his tone. These events should have destroyed such a sensitive personality, but there was a core of steel in Lester and he requested and obtained his release from Henderson and also got the latter to write him a letter stating that their parting had nothing to do with his talent. He returned to Kansas City to join Andy Kirk, left to go with Boyd Atkins in Minneapolis in 1935,, then linked up with Count Basle in the summer of 1936.
Buck Clayton, although born in Kansas in 1911, had spent much of his career on the West Coast until 1934, when he left for a two year musical engagement in Shanghai. Returning to Los Angeles in 1936, he formed his own group until he accepted an invitation from bandleader Willie Bryant to come to New York. On his way east he stopped off at Kansas City, where Basie induced him to fill the trumpet chair recently vacated by Oran "Hot Lips" Page.
Hammond was so enthused by the group that he contacted a young agent, Willard Alexander, and persuaded him to represent the band. They came east, playing dates in some of the larger cities on the way, finally reaching New York in December 1936. Hammond was busy augmenting the group and seeking replacements for one or two of the weaker links. Much to his fury a prospective recording contract with ARC was aborted when Decca's Jack Kapp signed the band (on very poor financial terms) to a three year contract.
Meanwhile, Billie Holiday was still joisting with fate and coming up bloody, but unbowed. Onyx Club owner Joe Helbock, who had dismissed her earlier, still felt badly about the affair and when Stuff Smith went on tour in December 1936 he lost no time in booking her as a companion act to the more affable Spirits of Rhythm: Life had battered her that year and his vote of confidence and kindness boosted her self-esteem, The date was successful, and after its completion she went straight into another engagement, in Harlem, at the Uptown House on 7th Avenue and 133rd Street. She was still appearing there at the time of the first Lester Young - Teddy Wilson recording date.
Hammond had really no idea of, what to expect when he arranged the session. As the Basie men had only been in town a week or so it is doubtful whether Billie had met them, although she knew Lester from 1934, when he had lodged with her mother. Drummer Jo Jones recalled that Lester was full of Billie when he joined him in the Boyd Atkins band in Minneapolis, but Jo Squashed him with: "Man, I don't want to hear about no singers!" Two years later, Jones heard and marvelled.
As for the rest of the musicians on the date, Teddy Wilson was an old friend, Benny Goodman had had a love affair with her around 1933, but Buck Clayton, Walter Page, Jo Jones and Freddie Green were unknown to her: indeed, Green was unknown to everybody. Born in the South, he had come to New York to finish his schooling and made a precarious living playing guitar in clubs that couldn't afford a full band: Hammond had caught him at the Black Cat Club in Greenwich Village, taken Goodman to hear him and immediately pegged him as a possible addition to the fledgling Basie big band. This recording date, his first, was kind of a trial to see how he would blend in with the rest, while Buck Clayton had made his recording debut four days earlier with the Basle band's initial recording.
On paper it looked a sure blueprint for disaster. The only experienced studio musicians present were Goodman and Wilson, and the session was almost cancelled when an ARC executive walked in, sniffed the cigarette smoke that was wafting through the air and discovered that it wasn't pure Virginian. Hammond somehow talked him out of lowering the boom, and the curtain went up on one of the great recording events in jazz history.
Billie's regular gig at the Uptown House was a pleasant one. Although her paychecks didn't always follow the normal seven-day cycle, the atmosphere was happy and Billie might well have settled, in on a semi-permanent basis. But fate had other plans.
Oh the evening of March 1st, 1937, she received a telephone call from Dallas asking her if she was the daughter of one Clarence Holiday. When she replied in the affirmative she was told that her father had died. Distraught, Billie could only stare at the receiver, and it was left to Clark Monroe, owner of the Uptown House, to get all the details of the burial service and its location.
Holiday père, although barely of draft age, had served in France during the last year of WWI and had had his lungs severely damaged by mustard gas, making him susceptible to any respiratory ailment. While touring the Southwest with Don Redman, he caught a heavy cold and, knowing the prevailing racial attitudes in the region, delayed seeking medical attention. Pneumonia set in and he died in the local Veterans' Hospital. He was 37. Holiday was a feckless man, but he lived in an era where racism took the smallest human frailties and transformed them into a cancer.
Both Billie and her mother, Sadie, were consumed with guilt. Sadie got lost on the way to the funeral and arrived hours after the interment. By doing so she was spared the confrontation between Clarence's second wife and a previously unsuspected third who arrived with their two children!
The emotional upheaval of the funeral and the time lost to traveling caused Billie to abandon her Uptown House gig. Once again John Hammond stepped in. Count Basle was having trouble competing with the wealth of big bands in the East, and Hammond suggested to Willard Alexander that the Basle name would be more marketable if be expanded his vocal book, included more Tin Pan Alley hits and hired Billie as the female counterpart to Jimmy Rushing.
Billie's only previous experience as a band singer had been a short tour north of the border with Louis Metcalf's band, but she readily agreed. Her Uptown House salary would be doubled, to $70 per week, and she would be with her new friends Freddie Green, Lester Young, Buck Clayton and Walter Page.
Life on the road in the 1930s was rough for any musician: for female singers it was a nightmare; for black female singers a living hell. Irregular hours, unsanitary conditions, lack of privacy, traveling in ramshackle buses over badly made roads (this was before turnpikes crisscrossed America) and, once settled for a few days, finding suitable accommodations. Basie tried to overcome the last obstacle by renting self-contained apartments whenever he could, so that the band could relax and prepare their own meals. In practice; Billie was den mother. She was, as Earle Warren put it: "One hell of a cook!"
English writer and jazz critic Stanley Dance made his first trip to the States in 1937 and caught Billie's debut with Basie (March 13th) when John Hammond drove him to Scranton, Pennsylvania. Billie was still feeling her way and Stanley was more impressed with the power and swing of the band, but the following week he saw them at the Apollo and she was much improved. Before he returned to London he also heard her with Joe Marsala's little group at the Hickory House in midtown Manhattan.
As was her wont, Billie bitched about the working conditions and the salary. No one had told her that out of the $70 a week she would have to buy all her evening gowns and get her hair fixed regularly. By the time she had paid for food and drinks and sent a weekly allowance to her mother she was left with nothing. Art Shapiro, bass player with Joe Marsala, remembers her dropping in at the Hickory House or her way uptown, hungry and with just enough money to pay for her subway fare. Marsala ordered a steak for her and put it on his tab. Billie never forgot that small kindness and, nearly 20 years later, mentioned it to Shapiro when they were on a record date together. Yet, despite all the trials and tribulations of a bigband vocalist, this was probably the happiest period of her life. She was, part of a musically exciting band, among friends and attracting a following with the public. For the first time she felt that she belonged. But again, her personal jinx struck.
The reasons behind Billie leaving Basie have always been shrouded in mystery, with vague charges about "deportment" and "unreliability" bandied around. The following story was told to me by Jo Jones who, 35 years later, still shed tears of rage at the memory; it was later confirmed by Deckie Wells and Dan Minor.
A figure with connections to the New York publishing world took a great interest in the Basie band and particularly in Billie's career. He unquestionably knew and had influence with some of the most prominent club owners and also had connections with various radio stations. He may also, through agent Willard Alexander, have had some, financial interest in the band, but this has never been proved. But he did have some sinister influence over Basie.
The band's musical policy was a well-balanced mixture of old and new jazz instrumental numbers: of the two vocalists, Jimmy Rushing handled the blues shouter role with great authority, while Billie, as a sop to commercialism, sang the pop standards of the day.
Ignoring the success of Billie's recordings, which were based on the same formula, our man went to Basie and suggested that she revive numbers from the 1920s which were associated with Ethel Waters, Clara Smith and other female blues singers.
When the change of musical policy was put to Billie her rejoinder was typically blunt: "Ah, hell, I ain't singing that old shit! This is 1938!"
Basle's reaction was to fire her, and when tempers had calmed down and she asked for her job back he told her that his hands were tied, fortifying the notion that at this stage of his career he was leader in name only.
The band remained without a female vocalist for several months, until John Hammond remembered a young woman he had heard and liked on an early OKeh record. After a search, Helen Humes was located in Cincinnati doing club work, and she agreed to come to New York for a trial, quickly adapting her style to the requirements of a big band and becoming the best female vocalist that Basie ever had.
All that Billie had to show for her independence was the memory of another man's betrayal. And this time she had not even enjoyed the consolation of a love affair.
If power, blocked of its quarry, was the reason for Billie's dismissal from the Basie band, then naked racism was the reason for her bad behavior while she was with Artie Shaw and the subsequent breakup of their friendship.
It took only a month after she was fired by Basie before she landed a job with Artie Shaw's big band. By the standards of the day it represented a considerable step forward in her career, but the added prestige brought its own set of problems.
Many people still think that Billie was the first black woman to sing with a white band, but that is not the case. Before she joined Duke Ellington in 1932, Ivie Anderson had a short stint as the "featured guest" with the San Francisco Outfit of Anson Weeks, while Alberta Hunter played much the same role with Jack Jackson at London's Dorchester Hotel two years later. The closest parallel to the Shaw-Holiday situation was Jimmy Dorsey hiring June Richmond in 1937. But, although Dorsey's credentials were impeccably liberal, he was wise enough to stick to areas in and around New York while she was with him.
Shaw, always a maverick, felt that Billie would be a tremendous asset. Burdened with the twin handicaps of being highly intelligent and Jewish, he knew firsthand about bigotry, and his way of dealing with it was to meet it head-on and, if necessary, rub the perpetrator's nose in it. Commendable, but not guaranteed to defuse the situation.
Billie joined Shaw in the spring of 1938, in the middle of a New England tour. There were no problems in Boston, but immediately when they reached the hinterland the trouble began. In fairness, much of the audience's complaints were not based on race, but on style. The bulk of America was not ready for Billie taking liberties with familiar melodies. Their objections were eagerly passed on to Shaw's management by the ballroom owners who used them as psychological warfare against future increases in booking fees. To alleviate the situation, Shaw decided to hire a white girl singer to handle pop numbers, leaving Billie the more specialized material. Auditions were held and 19-year-old Helen Forrest got the job.
In later years, stories circulated about the deep-seated rivalry and even hatred that sprang up between the two, but there seems to be little or no truth to the rumors. From the start Billie went out of her way to help and befriend the inexperienced teenager, even asking Shaw to give her more numbers to sing, while Helen, over the years, has had nothing but the warmest praise for her colleague. But indirectly Helen was involved in a situation that ultimately cost Billie her job.
In the late 1930s, the big-band business was a rat race, with every leader falling over himself to get the prestigious dates. The ultimate goal was a network radio show. The music publishers and song pluggers played a vital part in this battle, with the best material going to their favorite artists.
Shaw, with his intelligence, musicianship and movie-star looks was obviously a hot commodity and some of the major publishers promised him exclusive use of their new material with one proviso: Billie was not to sing it. With the big time beckoning Shaw agreed, hoping that the situation would improve as he became more powerful.
Meanwhile, the band was still struggling and Billie found herself with less and less to do. Finally Artie told the band that if Billie was to remain they would chip in and help with her salary. It is to their everlasting credit that not one member refused. I don't know if Billie was aware of the gesture, but if she was it must have created feelings of both gratitude and rage within her. Certainly some of her unhappiness at Helen getting the best songs caused their relationship to hit rocky passages, but the ill feelings never lasted.
Finally the breakthrough came. Shaw obtained an engagement at Manhattan's upper echelon Lincoln Hotel, with nationwide broadcasts over the RCA network, but the sponsors, taking a leaf out of the publishers' book, wanted to hear little or nothing of Billie "ruining the tune." During an hour's show she would get to sing one, or at the most, two numbers. The rest of the time she would skulk in the dressing room, becoming more and more paranoid.
Worse was to follow. The woman owner of the hotel took exception to Billie and ordered her not to sit at the bar or fraternize with customers, and, as a crowning humiliation, told her that she could only use the tradesmens' entrance and the freight elevator. The rest of the band were outraged! Shaw fought with the owner, but finally capitulated. Billie had to toe the line.
After some weeks of this she finally blew and quit the band, badmouthing Shaw to the music press, saying that he had made her sit upstairs all evening until her one number and generally ignoring her. Shaw angrily refuted the charges, stating that Billie was capricious, caused trouble and broke a promise made to him whereby she would sever her relations with the American Record Corporation and switch to RCA Victor so that she could record with his band. She did make one record with Shaw, "Any Old Time," which was quickly withdrawn from release after Brunswick `threatened a lawsuit.
Billie was the first to mellow, and although she stuck to her original complaints she acknowledged Artie's genius as a musician, his help and encouragement, saying that he was "a good cat deep down." Shaw took longer to come around, and if they were never as close again they did remain friends to her death, and he was one of the first to participate on her 1953 TV comeback show.
Was Artie Shaw right in caving in to the hotel's disgraceful demands? Of course he was. He had to weigh his own career and the careers of his musicians against the pain of one person. This was 1938, America was still in a depression, and big bands were a dime a dozen. If he had played the gallant he would have lost the engagement, possibly his band- and gained the reputation of an untouchable. The left-wing press and the NAACP might have clasped him to their collective bosoms, but playing dates at workers' summer camps wouldn't pay the rent.
Was Billie right in behaving the way she did? Absolutely! She had joined the band in good faith, done all that was asked of her, won the love and respect of her fellow musicians, and deserved loyalty in return. It's one thing to assess the situation logically and try to roll with the punches, but, there comes a time when blind rage overcomes, intellect and common sense. Artie Shaw tried to help a friend and make a stand for decency and ended up appearing less of a man because of the impossible pressures. Billie tried to rise above her dubious and undeserved reputation and acquired a worse one. The tragedy was that both saw the other's point of view, but were powerless to act on it.
But when she walked out of Artie Shaw's Orchestra she never dreamt that her decision would lead her to greater fame and recognition than she had ever enjoyed before and that her path would be blazed by the unlikely duo of a Jewish shoe manufacturer from Trenton, New Jersey, and a scion of one of the wealthiest WASP families in the United States.
Barney Josephson made frequent business trips to New York City from his Trenton base and in his leisure hours would frequent clubs in Harlem and on West 52nd Street. There he was struck by the incongruities of segregation, and it became his dream to create a club where people of all persuasions could come and eat without harassment and listen to good jazz played by the best musicians available. A mutual friend, Sam Shaw of the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, introduced Josephson to John Hammond. Hammond was not particularly interested by Josephson's desire to open a club he had heard such vague ambitions before - and it was not until he heard him expound on the topic of racial injustice that his interest perked up. "Would you be willing to run a totally desegregated club?" Hammond asked. "That's the reason I want to do this," Josephson replied. "Then I can help you."
Together they found a site in Sheridan Square, in the West Village. Josephson named the club Cafe Society. He took the name, and copyrighted it, from Clare Boothe Luce and Cholly Knickerbocker, the Hearst society columnist, hardly bastions of liberal thought. They had been using the term to describe the bluebloods who patronized such nightspots as the Stork Club and El Morocco. Hammond appreciated the-irony.
Josephson sold his business and used the $16,000 as start-up costs; Hammond, with his myriad contacts in the music business, provided the talent. Within two weeks all the money had gone; but business looked promising, so Hammond pitched in $5,000 and persuaded Benny Goodman and Willard Alexander to match him. The investment paid off. The room held 220 people, admission was $2.00 during the week, $2.50 at weekends, dinner $1.50, and you could nurse a 65c beer all night and just listen to the music. The club's slogan was "The Wrong Place for the Right People": it could easily have been reversed, for college students, New Masses readers, black intellectuals and liberal Jews all mingled in perfect harmony, much to the consternation of the Establishment.
In January 1939, Billie Holiday was freelancing at various clubs in and around New York. John Hammond felt that she would be the perfect headliner to launch the new venture and got Josephson to hire her. She opened with her accompanist, Sonny White, sharing the bill with Frankie Newton's band and boogie-woogie pianists Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis. While she was there a schoolteacher named Lewis Allen approached Josephson with a set of lyrics he had adapted from his own poetry and had set to music. Josephson was staggered by the imagery of the song and gave it to Billie. At first she was bewildered by it, then alienated by its theme, but Josephson persisted and Billie told him she'd think it over. It didn't take her long, for she later told Frankie Newton that "some guy had given her a hell of a song to sing." The song was "Strange Fruit."
"Strange Fruit" probably did more to put Billie on the map than anything she ever did. It was totally unlike any song written up to then, and it enraged those people it didn't scare. Frankly, I've never cared for it, thinking it a little too studied and contrived, but there's no doubt that it was written with the utmost sincerity and its effect in 1939 must have been electrifying. Allen never did anything else of note in the music world and, for me, his contribution of "Strange Fruit" was far outweighed by his adoption of the orphaned children of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, executed for treason in 1953 on a wave of anti Semitism, cloaked in the self-righteous raiment of patriotism.
While she was appearing at Cafe Society, Billie's contract with the American Recording Corporation was due to expire and she was in the middle of negotiating a new one. The previous month, ARC had been purchased by William Paley's CBS Broadcasting Network. Ike Levy, a member of the board, was also on the board of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra and he was looking for a company to record them. Billie was unhappy with the procrastination caused by the purchase of the company and approached Milt Gabler of Commodore Records. Gabler owned a jazz record store opposite the Commodore Hotel on East 42nd Street and another one on West 52nd between 5th and 6th Avenues. Most of the jazz musicians who played on Swing Street were his customers and friends and he became irked that some of their best music was not being recorded, so he started his own label in 1938. Billie was particularly incensed by a batch of tunes she had recorded for Brunswick in November of 1938 and felt that Hammond was punishing her for reasons other than artistic ones. Indeed, the falloff in the quality of her material is so drastic that I suspected that ARC/CBS had replaced her usual A&R. men with others, but neither Leonard Feather nor Gabler remembers any changing of the old guard.
Hammond disliked "Strange Fruit" and, despite Billie's pleas, refused to record it, but he and Columbia had no objection to her doing it for Gabler and indeed, encouraged her. The record was a big hit for the fledgling label, and the other three titles cut for the session Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays," "I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues" and "Fine And Mellow" - only accentuated the paucity of the material she was given by the larger company. Around this period her simmering feud with Hammond erupted into open warfare, and after her January 30th, 1939, session with Teddy Wilson he never recorded her again.
If a song can be translated into a dramatic role that changed an artist's career, then "Strange Fruit" was to Billie what Of Human Bondage was to Bette Davis or The Petrified Forest to Humphrey Bogart. It brought her national recognition, fame and a very modest fortune. It also attracted celebrity hunters of the worst sort, plus the type of men who were interested in nothing but a free ride. Lastly, it destroyed the joy and spontaneity that were an integral part of her artistry. The raw talent was shaped into something that was precious and unique, yet strangely lifeless. It was as though her precious raw materials had been forged into gold and her value artificially pegged by the commercial market.
Readers may well accuse me of playing devil's advocate. If there is a common thread to these notes it is my incessant carping about the poor quality of the material forced upon her by the music publishers who refused to give her top-of-the-line songs. But after the controversy and publicity surrounding "Strange Fruit," the pluggers and publishers sought her out and the songs she recorded, while not the hits of the day, were respectable samplings of items that were acquiring the reputation of standards.
So why am I complaining? No professional songwriter ever sets out to write a bad song. There is a very thin line between artistry and trash: a Johnny Mercer or a Lorenz Hart can take the most banal of themes (and what is more banal than a love song?) and with one felicitous phrase or wry observation make your heart jump with joy - or break it. Others, on a good day, can more or less duplicate those emotions. The rest of the time they fall flat and the increasing sophistication of subsequent generations only exposes their deficiencies.
The genius that was Billie Holiday could somehow capture the true, innocent meaning that was buried in those songs. A solid, Tin Pan Alley pro like Harry Woods wrote "What A Little Moonlight Can Do" on a bad day, and he and the world would have written it off if it hadn't been for a 20-year-old singing on a baking hot July afternoon in the ARC studios at 1776 Broadway, New York. "Oo-oo-what a little moonlight can do" - the distillation of young, vibrant, emotion reduced to a gooey mess from which we turn with a refined shudder. Listen to the Jack Hulbert recording of the same song. Hulbert was an English stage comedian of the "hearty" type and his interpretation is true to form. He deliberately sings it stiffly and awkwardly, every syllable hammered home to illuminate his onstage character of the straight - bat Englishman who trivializes the alarming symptoms of sexual passion by uttering his helpless plight in the language of the nursery. Yet there is also an underlying nastiness in the delivery, as though Hulbert is standing outside of his audience and appealing to his intellectual equals to sneer at the people who are taken in by his characterization. Contrast this approach with Billie's, who lives the young girl caught up in the madness of first love and whose "Oo-oo-oo" is both a sexual celebration and a verbal revelation of the cosmic link between man and nature. This is what Harry Woods and others less talented were trying to say in their fumbling way, and Billie with the skill of a surgeon cuts through all the fumbling verbiage and gets to the heart of the matter.
"Strange Fruit" gave her a readymade role and it was a beauty. She was a born actress and as she performed it, night after night, before an enthralled audience of young white intellectuals, so she began to live the part and see herself as the living symbol of injustice and oppression. God knows, she had enough reason to, but subliminally she began to feel that she had to be the spokesperson for all those who were in the Lower Depths and her 'repertoire and arrangements began to reflect a mordant bent. This did not happen overnight, and, indeed, there are some cuts from this period that are among the best things she ever did, but the trend was there and increased as the years went on. Her mistake was that she didn't let her natural instincts take charge and just sing, as she did with "What A Little Moonlight Can Do." Instead, she began to interpret.
John Hammond once stated that "Strange Fruit" was, from an artistic point of view, the worst thing that ever happened to Billie Holiday. I have to agree with him.
When Billie's contract with Columbia Records expired in 1942, she was temporarily without a label. The previous year she had married Jimmy Monroe, brother of her former Uptown House employer Clark Monroe. Neither her mother nor Joe Glaser liked. him, warning her that he would be nothing but trouble, but that only made him more attractive. They moved to California, Billie's first visit to the West Coast, where she soon got an engagement at a new club called "The Cafe Society," one of whose owners was film comedian Jerry Colonna. This connection brought a steady stream of movie stars to the club, delighting Billie who was as star struck as her mother. But a few weeks later the club shut down, Stranding Billie and Monroe. The latter decided to stay in Los Angeles "to pursue business deals," while Billie headed back east, completely broke.
By this time Joe Glaser had, abandoned a booking agency in favor of personal management - his real forte. In addition to Billie his clients at this time included Louis Armstrong, Red Norvo and Les Brown. Believing that brief dates in different cities pulled in more money than extended runs, he packaged her for an exhausting tour that covered most of the country. Billie cursed him out, saying that he could cover the United States with a series of phone calls, where she had to do it the hard way by dragging her ass for thousands of miles. But despite their often acrimonious relationship. Billie did appreciate that Glaser did his best for her and got her top dollar.
In 1944 she signed with Decca Records, chiefly because her old friend Milt Gabler was in charge of pop and jazz A & R for the label. Like many jazz vocalists, Billie had a secret desire to record with strings and, unlike John Hammond, who frowned on the practice, Milt encouraged her, although he had to battle Decca boss Jack Kapp before he would agree to the deal. On the first session she cut the beautiful "Lover Man," and subsequent dates, using top studio musicians and arrangers such as Toots Camerata, revealed a whole new dimension to Billie's artistry.
Given the times she lived in, Billie Holiday would never have been a wealthy woman, but all her life she did have influential friends who tried to help her. What destroyed her and dissipated the often substantial sums of money she earned was a series of unfortunate choices in men and her heroin addiction.
No one can say for sure when she finally became hooked. Certainly she was smoking marijuana in her teens, but this affected her no more than a few beers would. The changeover seemed to take place around the early 1940s, when her marriage to Jimmy Monroe was experiencing inevitable difficulties. Astonishingly enough, knowing the virulence of heroin addiction, she dabbled in it, but did not become truly addicted until she took up with Joe Guy, a trumpet player who became her lover and later her second husband. Guy was a hard-line drug user and as well as drawing Billie into his net he frittered away her savings with a series of ill-conceived schemes, culminating in a disastrous big-band venture which swallowed up her $35,000 savings. While all these troubles were piling up around her, friends remember her running an open house from her home in the Bronx. One musician states that she fed most of the unemployed musicians in New York for four years, and if she wasn't around there was always a kitty for subway fares, food or a seat at the movies. "Many of us would have starved without her."
In 1947 her addiction became such a problem that Joe Glaser gave her the ultimatum: "Seek treatment, or I'll drop you." She dried out in a New York clinic and for a time all was well, but the pressures of the music, business and the malign influence of Joe Guy were too strong and Billie became addicted again.
In May of that year she was appearing in Philadelphia. Details of what occurred are conflicting, but the general consensus of opinion is that when she returned to her hotel there were narcotics agents waiting for her. Panicking, she got into her car and drove at a breakneck pace back to New York. Glaser wanted her to surrender to the Philadelphia police, where he could use his influence to get her a suspended sentence, but only on condition that she stay away from Guy. She refused.
A few days later they were both arrested at New York's Grampion Hotel. Following a trial where she testified that she was spending $500 weekly on dope, she was sentenced to a year and a day in the Federal Reformatory in West Virginia and banned for life from singing in any New York nightclub. For some reason, known only to the local authorities, she did perform regularly at the Club Ivory (later Birdland) owned by her then-lover John Levy, although she was still constantly harassed by the local precinct. She was once heard to complain bitterly: "I've been invited to sing in some, of the best places in the world, yet I can't get heard in the crummiest gin mill in New York."
In 1952 she signed a recording contract with Norman Granz. Granz had organized a concert at Los Angeles Philharmonic Hall in 1945, featuring Billie, Gene Krupa, Coleman Hawkins and Anita O'Day and she had good memories of the way he treated artists. By the early 1950s her voice had diminished, growing throatier and narrower in range, but these technical shortcomings were more than compensated by the emotion and sheer artistry she displayed. Despite the cabaret ban she appeared on national television, at Carnegie Hall and other prestigious theaters.
In 1954 she embarked on a successful tour of Western Europe. That same year I was working as a copy boy on a London-based national newspaper. In a desperate attempt to bolster falling circulation, the paper had changed its editorial policy from that of leaden political activism to outrage at teenage hedonism and the decline in housewife's morals - all tabulated in lip-smacking detail. When Billie arrived on Her Majesty's shores, our news editor (whose social life was a cross between Caligula's and the Sun King's) ordered one of his junior reporters, in best Walter Burns style, to "see if you can dig up any dirt on that bitch."
To this day I don't know why he did it, but the reporter assigned to interview her, knowing of my interest in jazz, invited me along, warning me to speak only if addressed and not to proffer any half-baked opinions on music and musicians.
He need not have worried: this was my first experience with a celebrity and all I could do was stand tongue-tied and blush to the roots whenever her incurious glance fell my way. I don't remember very much of the interview, except that it (naturally) centered around drugs, with Billie vouchsafing that she was clean and had been for some considerable time. My memory of her was that of a big, raw-boned woman seemed incredibly tired and speech tailed off towards the end of the sentences, while her eyes, which seemed to have difficulty focusing completed the image of a finely tuned piece of machinery viewed through a prismatic lens. In my extreme naiveté I attributed all of this to transAtlantic travel and to the fact that she was nearing 40 years of age. It wasn't until we left the hotel that my companion, with all the cynicism of his 25 years, turned to me and uttered, matter-of-factly: "Well, old boy, it's quite obvious that she was coked to the gills." Thank God he had enough of his own idealism left to refrain from any snide editorial comments., merely turning in a dull story about her career that must have left the housewives sitting dishabille in their cami-knickers at breakfast, positively chewing their bacon in frustration. For that small gallantry and his gesture to me, I will be forever grateful.
So what is the point of all this? I'm not sure myself, except that I am trying to crystallize feelings that have lingered within me for 37 years. I was 18 years old, a typical product of my generation, with a teenager's rancid bouillabaisse of emotions raging inside of me. To me Billie represented Harlem, speak-easies, hard liquor and hot music, free and easy morals. Pages from Colette novels and Mickey Spillane paperbacks alternately flipped through my mind, fanned by the heat of my fevered imagination. Maybe I would remind her of someone she loved when she was young; maybe she would dismiss the reporter on some pretext and, asking me to stay... The only thing that stops me squirming with embarrassment is the fact that just about every other middle-aged adult has experienced the same absurd fantasies at some point in their life. 'Tis better to travel hopefully than to arrive. All of my supercharged libido disappeared within five minutes of entering that hotel suite. Here I was face to face with an incredibly attractive, sensuous woman who had clawed her way up from the ghettos to become the spokesperson for all her fallen sisters, whatever their pedigree, who had learned too late that sexual warmth and a generous heart were not enough. This was a person whose sexual drive and artistry could transform a banal Tin Pan Alley song into purest poetry, the way a beautiful. woman can change a lifeless dress on a store dummy into a second skin merely by climbing into it. And yet my reaction was one of compassion and tenderness. All I wanted to do was to reach out and take this woman in my arms, in the way a parent does with a 'small child who has been subjected and broken by the cruelties of life for the first time. For a very brief moment I became an adult and maybe a part of me has been trying to recapture the purity of that emotion ever since. I know I have never forgotten it.
Billie was happy in Europe where she felt that people treated her as an artist and as, a human being, not as a freak. Back in the States she was again arrested in Philadelphia on a narcotics charge and freed on the condition that she leave the city. When she returned to New York she immediately checked into a drug rehabilitation clinic. The treatment was successful, but a side effect increased her liquor consumption to at least two or three bottles of gin or vodka a day.
In the last year of her life Billie returned again to Europe, and those who saw her perform had no doubts that she was seriously ill. The death of her close friend Lester Young, in March 1959, hastened her decline. On 31st May she collapsed in her apartment and was taken to the Metropolitan Hospital in Harlem where she was diagnosed as having a liver complaint complicated by cardiac failure. Amazingly she rallied, but on 12th June another blow knifed through her heart. Police raided her hospital room and found a small tinfoil envelope containing heroin. Later, hospital staff said that Billie, pinned down by the respiratory equipment needed to keep her alive, would not have been able to reach the envelope and, besides, they would have noticed it. Whatever the true facts, a round the clock police guard was stationed outside her room and although this order was later overturned by her lawyer, it came too late to stop the authorities from removing her flowers, record player and radio.
Again she rallied and even took part in meetings regarding the filming of her life story. But the recovery was illusory and early on the morning of July 17th, 1959, she died, aged 44.
When her body was examined they found $750 taped to her leg - an advance for a series of autobiographical articles. Her bank account registered a further 70¢. By the end of the year more than $100,000 was added to the total as a result of increased record sales. The people who ignored and reviled her in life now-flocked around her symbolic corpse the way ghouls do after a road accident. Billie Holiday had no further use for such blood money.
As a postscript I'd like to tell one last, personal story. In 1972 I was present at a Teddy Wilson solo recording session. The producer had a couple of young men in their late teens helping him set up the equipment. They were not unlike the way I had been 20 years, earlier, only much more open and friendly-also products of their generation. They chattered on about jazz, and it became very apparent that their enthusiasm far outweighed their knowledge. Somehow Billie 's name came up and one of them turned to Teddy and asked: "Did you ever, meet her?"
I winced, waiting for the inevitable explosion. Time and the music business had transformed the gentle, cultured Teddy of the 1930s into a bitter, acerbic loner. To my astonishment, all he did was to nod his head and reply: "Yes, I met her."
Encouraged, the questioner pursued his line of thought: "What was she like?"
Billie Holiday: teenage hooker; drunk; heroin addict; convicted felon; lost soul. Teddy smiled, and for an instant it was like looking back to the face of 1935. "She was nice lady;" he said. "A very nice lady." I believe that Teddy Wilson knew the real Billie Holiday better than any man alive.