The bottle, the blues and Billie Holiday

Lady Day, a century after her birth.

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In January 1920, when Eleanora Fagan Gough was four, Prohibition began in the United States. Across the country, more than 1,500 federal agents tasked with enforcing the 18th Amendment took to the streets, beginning a 13-year war on temptation that, like any war, had its share of unintended winners and losers. Within the first “dry” year, crime soared by a fifth; as new speakeasies opened and morals loosened, the jazz age erupted “with a bang of bad booze”, as Hoagy Carmichael once put it.

Eleanora lived in Maryland where, eight decades earlier, a bunch of reformed drunks had set up the Washington Temperance Society for something to do. But the state had remained a “wet” one in the face of the Volstead Act, which in 1919 outlawed the production, sale and transport of “intoxicating liquors”. Volstead, schmolstead. Baltimore people liked to drink.

Some more than others. When Eleanora – who had changed her name to Billie Holiday after the movie star Billie Dove and Eleanora’s likely father, the jazz musician Clarence Holiday – failed to wake up in July 1959, the official verdict on the cause of death seemed a euphemism for a hard life of harder drinking and substance abuse. Her lungs had stopped working and her heart failed. She was 44.

 

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One cold, February night in 1933, the final year of Prohibition, Monette Moore was ill. She was on the bill to sing at a speakeasy – her own speakeasy, at that – and she knew her friend John Hammond, a Columbia Records man, was driving into Harlem to see her. Hammond was a fan and a Vanderbilt heir, a committed anti-racist and blues enthusiast who would later discover Robert Johnson and sign Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen.

That night, Moore was a no-show but Hammond didn’t leave her place disappointed. Onstage was a replacement – an elegant 18-year-old who’d been playing small clubs for a couple of years, a survivor of sexual abuse and violence, a dope smoker, already a drinker, most of all a singer, with a tone both soft and strong, a voice that floated from note to note but with the precision of an instrumentalist. Hammond was knocked out. “She was the best jazz singer I had ever heard,” he said.

Over the next decade, dozens of records followed on Hammond’s label. There were jubilant movie songs such as “Pennies from Heaven”; there were sad sighs made up to sound cheerful (my favourite being “Carelessly”). She performed with Duke Ellington, Lester Young, Benny Goodman, some of the era’s defining musicians, who must have sensed in her a peer. Then, in 1939, she recorded “Strange Fruit” and became something altogether new. Holiday was only 24 at the time but here she became a kind of ghost. Think of her as one and her voice makes sense: the whisper of a woman neither alive nor dead, mournful and eternal.

 

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Her life was short and her decline rapid. Booze and drugs took away the softness in her voice. But I always preferred the last recordings. After seeing Holiday sing in 1956, Studs Terkel wrote: “In sensing her mortality, we sensed our own.” There’s something of this in Lady in Satin, recorded a year before her death, a slow, orchestral collection of ballads that captures Holiday at her most fragile. The arranger Ray Ellis was initially disappointed at her vocals, which bore the scars of her alcoholism and wilful disregard of her health. Yet in songs such as “For All We Know”, that shadow of self-destruction makes the breezy phrasing sweeter and the glimpses of optimism all the more haunting.

Holiday was born on 7 April 1915 in a young, still segregated America, with both world wars ahead of it. She died handcuffed to a hospital bed on 17 July 1959 (she had been arrested on a narcotics charge). The jazz age began with a bang of bad booze and intoxication of every kind. And it ended, once and for all, with another.

Yo Zushi’s new album, “It Never Entered My Mind” (Eidola Records), is out now

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.