Profile In Dreaming: The Angel Of Harlem

Billie Holiday's story is as glorious as it is tragic. She overcame all sorts of challenges to build a timeless musical legacy. Her song, "Strange Fruit," that depicted the lynching of African Americans in the South, was awarded the 'Song of the Century' by Time Magazine. She scrapped and hustled her way through a racist, sexist world, only to die at the hands of her own drug addiction. Her light shines even brighter today, as she finally receives the recognition her courage and talent deserved.

If someone told you that Time Magazine was picking its Song of the Century, what would you expect it to be?

Surely something by the Beatles. Or Michael Jackson. Elvis Presley, maybe. What about Bob Dylan? So many choices. After all, the Twentieth Century was a cornucopia of music, most of which we can still listen to today.

What would you say if I were to tell you that they chose a song about the lynching of African Americans in the South? Or that this was a song written and performed by a Heroin addict that died at the age of forty-four with policemen stationed outside her hospital room door?

You probably wouldn’t believe me. But it’s true.

That song is “Strange Fruit.” Its creator, Eleanora Fagan Gough, better known as Billie Holiday.

Her story is as miraculous as it is tragic. An unlikely superstar, who overcame challenge after challenge to become a musical icon. An ex-convict, hounded by the law until her death, with a voice and presence that made grown men cry.

Holiday was born on April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia to an unmarried teenager. She was plunged into poverty right from the start and spent most of her childhood working. It was rumored that she was raised in a brothel. As she put it, “I never had a chance to play with dolls like other kids. I started working when I was 6 years old.”

She made two trips to the Baltimore House of the Good Shepherd for Colored Girls, a Catholic reformatory school for troubled young girls. Her first stint was for truancy, while her second was after she had been abducted and assaulted by a forty-year-old neighbor. Although she endured horrific treatment at the school, it was also the place where she found her singing voice.

Holiday left the school at the age of fourteen. She moved to New York with her mother, where they had no money and struggled to find work. As she told it, “This is the truth. Mother and I were starving. It was cold...mother was a housemaid and couldn't find work. I tried scrubbing floors, too, but I just couldn't do it.”

She began shopping her voice around the jazz clubs in Harlem, hustling for tips to help put food on the table. And she was moderately successful, taking in $18 a week, enough to pull her and her mother out of the hole they were in.

In an interview with Downbeat Magazine in 1939, Holiday described how she got her start. It’s an incredible story:

“We lived on 145th Street near Seventh Avenue. One day, we were so hungry we could barely breathe. I started out the door. It was cold as all hell and I walked from 145th to 133rd down Seventh Avenue, going in every joint trying to find work.

Finally, I got so desperate I stopped in the Log Cabin Club, run by Jerry Preston. I told him I wanted a drink. I didn’t have a dime. But I ordered gin (it was my first drink—I didn’t know gin from wine) and gulped it down. I asked Preston for a job ... told him I was a dancer. He said to dance. I tried it. He said I stunk. I told him I could sing. He said sing.

Over in the corner was an old guy playing a piano. He struck ‘Travelin’’ and I sang. The customers stopped drinking. They turned around and watched. The pianist, Dick Wilson, swung into ‘Body And Soul.’ Jeez, you should have seen those people—all of them started crying. Preston came over, shook his head and said, ‘Kid, you win.’ That’s how I got my start.”

Holiday got another big break at the age of eighteen, when she was discovered by John Hammond, the same man that would later help build the careers of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Count Basie, Leonard Cohen, and Aretha Franklin.

Hammond was astonished by her talent: “Her singing almost changed my music tastes and my musical life, because she was the first girl singer I’d come across who actually sang like an improvising jazz genius.” He got her recording work with an up-and-coming clarinetist and bandleader named Benny Goodman. Suddenly, she had a foothold in the music industry.

She sang vocals on a few songs with Goodman, including her first commercial release, “Your Mother's Son-In-Law” and the 1934 top ten hit “Riffin’ the Scotch.” She followed that up in 1935 with several more singles, including “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Miss Brown to You.” That same year, she appeared with Duke Ellington in the film “Symphony in Black.”

Around this time, Holiday met and befriended saxophonist Lester Young, who was part of Count Basie’s orchestra. Young gave Holiday the nickname “Lady Day” in 1937, the same year she joined Basie's band.

Holiday began touring with the Count Basie Orchestra. The following year, she worked with Artie Shaw and his orchestra. Holiday broke new ground with Shaw, becoming one of the first female African American vocalists to work with a White orchestra.

Throughout this period, Holiday experienced racism from promoters, venues, and hotels. She was regularly forced to hide backstage or in her room when she wasn’t performing and some hotels required her to use the backdoor.

One theatre manager even insisted the light-skinned Holiday blacken her face so the audience would not think she was White and get angry she was performing with Black musicians.

Holiday was making around $70 a week, but she hated it. She struck out on her own and began performing at New York’s Café Society. It was there that Holiday developed her trademark stage persona, like wearing gardenias in her hair and singing with her head tilted back. She also debuted two of her most famous songs, “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit.”

In 1941, Holiday’s life took a dark turn when she married James Monroe, who introduced her to opium. Although the marriage didn’t last, her newfound addiction to drugs would plague her for the rest of her life.

Holiday eventually sought treatment for heroin addiction, but was arrested for drug possession in 1947 and ended up serving 10 months in a federal prison. Her conviction meant her “cabaret card” license in New York state was revoked and she could no longer perform at any club where liquor was sold.

Not long after her release, however, Billie Holiday played at Carnegie Hall. She was a wild success, selling out in record time and receiving three curtain calls in her first performance.

Holiday remarked in an interview that “I spent the rest of the war years on 52nd Street and a few other streets. I had the white gowns and the white shoes. And every night they'd bring me the white gardenias and the white junk…Heroin not only kept me alive - maybe it also kept me from killing. I hold no regrets and I carry no shame.”

At the height of her career, she was making roughly $1,000 a week, and much of it went toward feeding her drug habit. Sadly, like some of her contemporaries, years of drug and alcohol abuse badly beat her body, culminating in a cirrhosis diagnosis.

Her drug habit caught the attention of Harry Anslinger, the head of the newly formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who relentlessly pursued her until her death. He had taken issue with her propensity to speak out against racial violence and injustice.

The story of the weeks leading up to her death is a sinister one. Many believe to this day that Holiday would not have died without Anslinger’s intervention.

When she was bedridden in hospital, narcotics agents were sent to her hospital bed, claiming to find less than one eighth of an ounce of heroin in her possession. But the heroin was in a place Holiday was incapable of reaching.  

They confiscated all her belongings, handcuffed her to the bed, and stationed two policemen outside her door. Her friends weren’t allowed to see her. They even took her off the critical list, so that they could justify her arrest.

Holiday began taking methadone on a doctor’s prescription and showed signs of recovery after a few days. But, Anslinger cut her off. Her condition worsened. Anslinger’s men fingerprinted her and took her mugshot, while she was toiling in bed. They didn’t even let her speak to a lawyer.

Holiday finally died on July 17, 1959, with police officers at the door to protect the public from her. She looked - as one of her friends told the BBC - “as if she had been torn from life violently.” She had fifteen fifty-dollar bills strapped to her leg. It was all she had left. She had intended on giving it to the nurses who had looked after her, to thank them.

Upon her death, the Baltimore Afro-American wrote: “A marijuana smoker at 14, an addict on a heroin kick at 25, and a physical wreck before she was 50 - that was the life of Lady Day.”

But her life was so much more than that. She was and remains a powerful figure in African American history. “Strange Fruit” is a timeless rendition of the struggles facing African Americans that remains relevant today.

In death, Holiday garnered more than 20 Grammy wins or nominations, and in 2000, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

She influenced some of the biggest names in music, including Frank Sinatra, who named her as his biggest influence.

“Every major pop singer in the US during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius,” he said. “It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me. Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last 20 years.”

Make that the last century and beyond.

Here are some things you might not have known about Billie Holiday:

  • "Strange Fruit" was honored by the Library of Congress as one of the 50 songs to be added to the National Recording Registry in 2002.
  • Holiday recorded "Strange Fruit" with an alternate label, Commodore, because Columbia would not allow it because of its subject matter.
  • She changed her name to Billie Holiday as an appreciation to film star Billie Dove.
  • The U2 song "Angel of Harlem" was a tribute to her.
  • A statue of Holiday was erected in Baltimore at the corner of Lafayette and Pennsylvania Avenues.

And three lessons from her life:

Be Yourself

Holiday had a unique style all to herself. Her range was small and she often sounded as if she was talking, rather than singing. The producer that discovered her, John Hammond, was once asked whether he was criticized for signing Bob Dylan, who also had an unusual voice, and he responded that the backlash he received was nothing compared to the response when he signed Holiday.

Everybody doubted her, but she believed in herself. In her heart, she knew her music would be immortalized and she stuck to it. It’s a good thing she did.

It’s a recurring theme in my newsletter, but the importance of being yourself cannot be understated. You will have doubters. You will hear conflicting opinions. It is all just noise. Your instinct is the only thing that matters. You are the only person that has to live with your choices.

Do Whatever It Takes

Holiday had to scrap for everything. She had to hustle to earn enough in tips to feed herself and her mother. She had to fight for her opportunity to sing at the jazz clubs in Harlem. Even after she broke into the music industry, she had to overcome countless challenges to be heard.

She endured racism and abuse. She transcended her own drug addiction and time in prison to continue to perform and build her legacy. Holiday never had it easy, but she fought her way to the top. She had a vision for what she wanted to achieve and nothing would get in her way until her death.

Fulfilling a dream is an adventure that is often filled with challenges. Challenges that are difficult in the moment, but that make the journey worthwhile. Keep your eye on the prize and do what you need to do to survive. There are always better days ahead and you will be one step closer to accomplishing your goal.

Be Brave

When Holiday created “Strange Fruit,” it was in the context of a racist society, where lynchings remained relatively commonplace. Her own record label, Columbia, was not interested in releasing the song. But that didn’t stop her. It took great courage to put out such a controversial song at the time and even more to perform it at concerts.

Holiday drew strength from her father’s story. Having been exposed to mustard gas in the Great War, his lungs were in a dreadful state and when he collapsed in Texas while touring, they wouldn’t let him in the local hospital.

As she put it, “It reminds me of how Pop died, but I have to keep singing it, not only because people ask for it, but because 20 years after Pop died the things that killed him are still happening in the South.”

We experience the most fear right before we do something monumental. Our greatest glories lie on the other side of fear. Use your fear to drive you forward. A strong sense of purpose can be your greatest ally in overcoming fear. Remind yourself that nothing worthwhile was ever achieved without fear.