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Lady Day: All Day, Every Day
From April 115, WKCR radio will feature a 24-hour-a-day Billie Holiday Festival.

Holiday rarely went anywhere without Mister. He even accompanied her to bars.
Credit: ©William P. Gottlieb

What's your favorite: I Loves You, Porgy or God Bless the Child? Or maybe your fancy is tickled by some of Lady Day's lesser-known pieces, say, Swing Brother, Swing or Your Mother's Son-in-law. Either way, you're in for a treat April 1–15, when WKCR 89.9 FM features a 24-7 Billie Holiday Festival.

Broadcast in celebration of what would have been Lady's Day's 90 th birthday, this first-ever radio Billie-blast will include celebrated hits along with some of her lesser-known songs, culled from the more than 748 songs she is known to have recorded. The festival will be broadcast in highest audio clarity and will include commentary by noted jazz historians.

Born Eleanora Fagan Gough on April 17, 1915, in Baltimore, Holiday came into her own during the heyday of jazz. She was discovered at age 17 by John Hammond, the music producer who is also famous for having discovered music greats Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Bessie Smith and Aretha Franklin.

Holiday 's childhood was punctuated by a number of events that contributed to the self-destructive behavior that would eventually claim her life. Her mother was 17 when Holiday was born, and her father abandoned the family shortly thereafter. Unable or unwilling to care for her, Holiday's mother left her in the care of her grandparents and moved to New York. Holiday and her mother were reunited years later in a less than optimal situation: At 13, Holiday became an errand girl in the brothel where her mother worked.

Those early events left an indelible mark on her sense of herself. Holiday is known to have made up more socially acceptable stories about her childhood in what many scholars say was an attempt to appear respectable. Farah Jasmine Griffin, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia, notes, "[ Holiday] told stories that would lend her an air of respectability. She was certainly aware of the stereotypes of black women, and she wanted to present an image of her mother that was more complicated."

Griffin, author of If You Can't Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday, also points out that Holiday's inventiveness may have been motivated by a desire to create different public and private personas. "She told stories that she knew would sell," Griffin says.

Her stories and the cloak of mystery they created around her sold almost as well as her records -- and they still do today. Her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, co-written with William Dufty, continues to have impressive sales. And jazz aficionados still debate the details of her life -- the year she was born, her relationship with her father, her involvement with prostitution. But there is no disagreement about her influence.

"The emotional power of this definitive jazz singer also reaches the hearts of many listeners who appreciate her alone among jazz performers," says historian Phil Schaap, c urator of Jazz at Lincoln Center and one of the experts who will offer historical footnotes during the festival.

Holiday's behind-the-beat timing and command of her instrument inspired some of this century's greatest musicians, from vocalists Frank Sinatra and Abbey Lincoln to clarinetist Benny Goodman and saxophonist Lester Young, who gave Holiday the nickname "Lady Day." These members of jazz royalty all count Holiday as an influence.

"She is second only to Louis Armstrong in terms of influence on jazz musicians," says Professor Griffin. Current popular musicians also cite her as an inspiration. According to Griffin, Macy Gray once remarked that "once she heard Billie Holiday sing, she knew she could sing. You can also hear her influence in Nora Jones and Erykah Badu."

Drug and alcohol abuse contributed to a decline in Holiday's command of her instrument, and it claimed her life on July 17, 1959. Her death at age 44 marked the end of a tumultuous life, a life that can be relived through her songs, the lyrics of which she infused with the experience of having lived them.

For more information on the festival, contact WKCR. To fine out more about Billie Holiday, visit the Official Site of Billie Holiday.

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Published: Apr 01, 2005
Last modified: Mar 31, 2005

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