The mere mention of her name evokes in us the image of the black jazz singer, with a prodigious voice and turbulent life. It is enough for us to close our eyes and sing one of her moving interpretations to enter into ecstasy:
‘On the southern trees hangs a strange fruit/blood on the leaf and blood on the root / black bodies swaying in the southern breeze.’
This is how Billie sang 1939 one of her legendary songs, Strange Fruit. The interpreter is then twenty-four years old and she begins to drink the honey of her success: she has achieved her first performance as a leader, at the Café Society in New York’s Greenwich Village and she does not hesitate to include the song in her repertoire. Her voice, broken by her emotion, flows from her resounding and aching throat, shaking the audience.
Billie ‘is the song’, a ‘strange fruit’ that emerged from misery and heartbreak, beaten, resurrected and sunk, found again, and finally died in life. In it, she evokes her brothers from the south of her, lynched for being guilty of a single sin, the color of her skin.
She is the black girl from the union of a 13-year-old girl with Clarence Halliday, a jazz guitarist who was only two years older than her. The musician, too young and immature to deal with fatherhood, would abandon mother and daughter to his fate a few years later. Of course, the little girl would take her last name, and she would also leave him what would be her stage name, Bill because to him her little girl looked like a boy.
Little Eleonora Flanagan would grow up in Baltimore between the wars, under the care of her mother, not under her care, since the young woman could take little care of her: black, poor, and without studies, she was forced to alternate jobs as a maid and prostitution. Meanwhile, the girl was left in the care of relatives, acquaintances, or neighbors, who, as expected, take little and bad care of her.
It would be one of the latter, a certain Wilbert Roch, who would rape her when she was only ten years old, although a racist jury would consider her guilty, it is not very clear what, while he would only sentence her to three months in prison. aggressor. As a result of this event, Eleonora would be admitted to a Catholic reformatory, Good Shepherd, a center from which she would not leave until three years later. At that time her mother worked in a Harlem brothel, and she would spend the next few years there as well. Eleonora managed to be as happy as her circumstances allowed her, thanks to an old jukebox from which the prodigious music of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith emerged. They would be his ‘salvation’ from her. The young aspirant sang and danced to it while she made beds and cleaned toilets.
But the sleaze of hers that surrounds her wraps her in her webs and she soon begins prostitution, which lands her back in the penitentiary. When she leaves, she continues to prostitute herself, but she also decides to try her luck with music and begins to sing in the bars of Harlem. She until one fine day she arrives at Pods and Jerry’s. The cabaret will be transcendental for her career: she manages to be hired there for 18 dollars a week. The young applicant is only sixteen years old and she waddles between the tables for the comfort of the regulars, who cheer her on while they consume her beers. Eleonora smokes marijuana and begins to consume alcohol properly.
One fine day she lands at the local John Hammond, an accomplished Columbia producer scout, who catches a glimpse of the diamond in the rough and decides to launch her to stardom. The budding artist changes her name to Childhood Bill, and she begins touring stages and recording tracks. She now is Billie Holiday blues singer, the consummate jazz performer. Her first album, Your Mother’s Son-in-Law, recorded in 1933, already makes a place for her among the greats of the moment. Billie rises quickly and is soon a star.
But offstage, Billie is once again that black girl forsaken by God. Her skin color prevents her from accessing elevators and private entrances, which are off-limits to blacks, and, despite her relevance, her salary is not nearly comparable to that of white artists.
In 1935 she made her debut at the prestigious Apollo Theater (Afro-American music mecca), and soon after she appeared in a short film with the great Duke Ellington. Billie performs with different bands, in one of which she will meet the one who will be her best friend, the late Lester Young, who will baptize her with the nickname ‘Lady Day’. An excited Billie stars in tours and manages to act alongside the greats, including her admired Louis Armstrong.
The following decade is extremely prolific: Billie records close to 200 songs, some of them masterful jazz pieces such as Our Love is Different, Love My Man, or Fine and Mellow together with the aforementioned Lester Young, two years before her tragic death.
But as she matures as a singer, she begins to try psychotropic drugs, and along with these, men appear, who are often the ones who give them to her.
Billie’s love life is as promiscuous as it is tortuous. Confident of finding true love, she married twice: in 1941 with trumpeter Jimmy Monroe and in 1957 with mobster Louis McKay. Both marriages fail.
MacKay rips her apart: while boosting her career and supposedly keeping her off drugs, using her as a cash register and beating her to the ground. She will dedicate her song, My Man, to him: ‘I don’t know why I have to / It’s not honest / It hits me, too / What can I do? / Oh my man, I love him so much.
Billie is already an addict, abuses drugs and soon becomes the most famous drug addict in the country. Arrested repeatedly, she is imprisoned and loses the necessary card to perform in prestigious New York nightclubs, forcing her to undertake tours of dubious pomp.
Consumed by drugs and drunk, she nevertheless records Lady Satin, with which she shows that her hoarse and mature voice is still beautiful.
But Billie’s life goes out. On July 17, 1959, the singer, arrested for drug use, lies in a New York hospital bed victim of cirrhosis. Next to her is only her dog. Her death surprises her and Lady Day cannot cope. She is only 44 years old.