About this Recording
8.120701 - HOLIDAY, Billie: Trav'lin' Light (1940-1944)



“Trav’lin’ Light”  Original Recordings 1940-1944


“Many’s the whipping I got for listening to Louis’s records when I was a kid … When I was nine I used to run errands for the woman on the corner because she’d let me listen to all of Bessie’s records.” 

      Billie Holiday, reminiscing


The tragic cult-figure of jazz par excellence, Billie Holiday now holds a special rank among the great female singers because rather than in spite of how she lived. Like heroines in other spheres, such as Garland or Callas, her life and its travails exemplify the ‘romantic’ idea that great art and tragedy are frequent bosom companions. Holiday the brazen and defiant blues stylist and Holiday the fatally insecure drug-addict are two sides of the same coin. Via the recording microphone – which she claimed terrified her – Holiday the artist found temporary renewal, a fleeting elevation from life’s ills, but despite her new-found wealth remained a prey to her own insecurity and vulnerability.  


Born Eleonora Fagan in the black ghetto of Baltimore on 7 April 1915, Billie did not have an easy start in life as the daughter of Sadie Fagan, a sixteen-year-old housemaid and Clarence Holiday, an eighteen-year-old trumpeter who, having sustained lung injuries during military service in France in World War I, took up guitar and banjo instead. By 1921 Clarence had effectively aband-oned his family to tour the States with McKinney’s Cotton Pickers and, by about a decade later, was ensconced in Fletcher Henderson’s prestigious Roseland Ballroom society jazz-band.  Meanwhile Billie had been left to grow up the hard way on the streets of her native city, earning a living even as a child scrubbing floors in the houses of Balti-more’s wealthy white population and, arriving at puberty, as a prostitute. These early years of Billie’s life are obscure, but she is believed to have first joined her mother in New York City, in 1928.


Like her younger counterpart and soon-to-be rival Ella Fitzgerald, as a child Billie had been impressed and inspired by the jazz she heard on recordings by Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith and, after she and Sadie arrived in Harlem, she was able to observe Louis and her other jazz heroes in the flesh.  From the age of fifteen she sang in speakeasies, improvising vocals at jam-sessions with players of the highest calibre, including Benny Carter, Roy Eldridge, Charlie Shavers, Buck Clayton and Lester ‘Prez’ Young (1909-1959), her subsequent work colleague and platonic soul-mate. Early in 1933 record scout John Hammond (1910-1987) first heard Billie at the Long Cabin Club. He introduced her to Benny Goodman – in a suitably colourful location: “Billie was singing at Pod’s and Jerry’s Log Cabin, a club on 133rd Street, near Monette Moore’s old place, and the one spot in Harlem known to many white musicians. It stayed open until dawn and was presided over by one of the original characters of jazz, Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith, who conversed flamboyantly while playing fine stride piano.”


Goodman booked Billie and, in November and December 1933 she made her first recordings with the Goodman orchestra at his own first Columbia sessions and although her earliest association with the clarinet ace was not an unqualified success, from mid-1935 onwards it brought her into close association – again via Hammond – with the Texas-born pianist Theodore ‘Teddy’ Wilson (1912-1986). During 1935 Billie was signed by Louis Armstrong’s manager, Joe Glaser and, from mid-1936, she was given a higher profile recording a parallel series of discs, billing her as ‘Billie Holiday And Her Orchestra’. Comprising items in a more intimate and sentimental vein, these featured Wilson and other ad hoc musicians. Although they apparently never performed together publicly, Holiday and Wilson enjoyed a four-year recording partnership, which by general agreement produced Billie’s finest discs. As people Wilson the refined ex-Talladega College music graduate and Holiday the foul-mouthed ex-hooker were unlikely bedfellows, but together they made magical music. Between July 1935 and the musicians union strike of 1942 Billie made over a hundred records, many with small groups fronted by Teddy. 


Although she was initially proclaimed as ‘The Lady Who Sings The Blues’ and type-cast in the twelve-bar Bessie Smith tradition, the preponder-ance of Tin Pan Alley and Swing numbers among Billie’s early recordings attests to the recording studios’ conscious efforts to cash in on the more marketable aspects of blues singing. Several of her records (beginning with ‘What A Little Moonlight Can Do’, in 1934) sold in fair numbers to an unspecialised (i.e. non-jazz) audience, but despite a rapid succession of popular titles issued on Brunswick and Vocalion labels, Billie was destined never to become a popular cult figure with the larger public during her lifetime. She toured with Count Basie in 1937, with Artie Shaw in 1938 and continued to record with Wilson until 1939, then suddenly forsook the band scene to promote her own solo act at Barney Josephson’s New York’s Café Society Club, in an attempt to give new direction to her blues singing.  She had a strong jazz following, plus a certain leftist cult interest attendant on her recording for Commodore of ‘Strange Fruit’, but in a palpable sense controversial numbers like this, however valid in their context, tended to remove Billie from the commercial limelight.


Unlike Ella Fitzgerald, Billie lacked the temp-erament for a solo career – despite the acclaim she won at top nightspots, her progress was hampered by alcohol and heroin addiction and an inner diffidence caused by deep-rooted personal problems.  From about 1940 onwards her recorded output took on a graver, sadder, more distinctly autobiographical connotation. She began to incline more and more towards slow tempi and songs with depressing lyrics, numbers such as Loveless Love and Rezso Seress’s famous ‘suicide song’ of 1936, Gloomy Sunday, prompting Johnny Mercer (clearly a big fan) to remark ‘She made you feel she needed help’.  By 1944 the spontaneity of her performance was often audibly undermined by the drug habits which, over the next decade, would plague her physically and mentally and land her regularly in deep water with the law.


Billie Holiday died in a New York hospital on 31 May 1959, three years after publishing her colourful but deliberately misleading memoir Lady Sings The Blues. A bestseller, this provided both inspiration and basic framework for the Oscar-nominated 1972 Paramount-Motown film of the same name. Starring Diana Ross as our heroine, this sensationalising of Billie’s tragic life, dismissed by Halliwell as an ‘old-fashioned showbiz biopic with new-fashioned drugs, sex and squalor’, did little to dispel the mythologizing cult which has for too long overemphasised the more dubious aspects of a unique talent.  On records – rhythmic and clear in the ’30s and later, admittedly, often gnarled by her experiences – Billie Holiday may now be viewed more objectively, within the broader tradition of jazz vocalising.


Peter Dempsey, 2003

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