Eleanora Fagan born April 7, 1915, died July 17, 1959.
If you don’t know who she is, then that’s certainly alright. I will introduce you to her. She was an incredible woman.
You might even be surprised, or learn something but If I could have a wish it would be that this particular blog entry makes you think.
I know there are a fair chunk of you that know my feelings on what blues music is and what it is not. I think I can even hear a few of you groan. If you don’t you can go back to that previous blog on the blues and read up and then come back to this one or you will get enough maybe from this one to know and hopefully to understand through the eyes of my friend Eleanora.
Sometimes it is very hard to understand things that happened long ago because your context is the here and now. Blues performers walked or hoboed from juke joint to juke joint to play. Now the people who attended these shows didn’t want to go and hear a bunch of sad songs about the lives they lived. They didn’t want to hear about loss, about hopelessness. They lived that every day. Blues performers played blues songs for sure as well as dance numbers and sing a-longs. Their job was to keep the crowd dancing, keep them buying hooch. The more they did that the more they got paid.
The reason why I am writing that is that when you learn who this blog is about well your first thought might be, wow is that person a blues performer. You might even think they were a jazz performer. In fact if you said that this person was the greatest jazz singer ever I wouldn’t argue. Jazz though, especially back in the 30’s and 40’s had many blues elements in the songs and jazz bands played many popular blues numbers. No I am quite sure in my heart that the person I am writing about is the greatest singer of all time, male or female any genre you want to select, including the blues.
You see, that’s one of my problems. I simply don’t understand why some people only listen to one type of music. I am part of a blues fan group and I am shocked at how limited they are. They literally listen to what they think is the blues all day every day. Now first most of them love a bunch of white people pretending to be blues artists and that’s all they are, pretenders. I have no problem with someone loving the blues, but that music has been stolen from black culture without understanding at all where and why it derived. It is listened to and played by white people including Englishmen who don’t have a clue what the music means. They couldn’t.
Take young Eleanora. Her father abandoned her mother upon learning she was pregnant. He was an itinerant jazz performer riding circuits trying to make a living trying to make a name for himself. Eleanora’s mother worked the trains and she was mostly raised by her mother’s half-sister in Baltimore. She was truant a lot and spent time with the nuns at reform school. Her mother came in and out of her life. When she was 11 a neighbor attempted to rape her but was caught. Her mother then moved to Harlem. At 14 Eleanora went to live with her mother only to find that she was a prostitute and so soon was Eleanora. They were arrested and spent time in a workhouse.
By the age of 17 Eleanora knew she wanted to be a singer and began singing in nightclubs around Harlem. She created a professional name for herself Billie from the actress Billie Dove who she admired and Halliday after her father. She later changed that to Holiday. At 19 she recorded her first songs. And so you can see by the age of 19 years old, how much had happened in her life. She didn’t sing the blues as much as she was the blues.
Early in her singing career Holiday ran into her father. It was inevitable really as they were both playing the clubs. They reconciled and reconnected which has always astonished me. Holiday began to get noticed more and more, Count Basie noticed her and she was soon singing in his orchestra. Later she sang for a white orchestra leader Artie Shaw and his predominantly white orchestra. Shaw was good to her but the times were not. She would sing for mostly white audiences and then return to hotels where she was forced to use the kitchen entrance and the service elevator so as not to upset white patrons. Yea she knew the blues. If you want to know what was happening in the blues world, mostly nothing. It was the same as it had been musicians traveling from town to town recording a little or a lot depending on the artist and playing for juke joints mostly in the south or in Chicago. Jim Crow still ruled the land and to understand where the blues came from you have to understand, empathize and even cry for Emmit Till, for little girls blown up in a church in Alabama, for the lynching that still took place, for the hundred of atrocities committed simply because of the color of a person’s skin.
At the height of her career, Holliday made over 250,000 dollars in a three year span. She didn’t receive royalties but instead was paid upfront per recording. She did well for herself outperforming and out earning many white contemporary artists. But she wasn’t white. Holiday discovered narcotics, heroin, and drank to excess. Later the alcohol use would destroy her beautiful voice and she was arrested for narcotics and went to prison. It is doubtful a white artist of her stature would have done so. Billie Holiday was the blues. When she heard a song from a poem written by a Jewish man she wanted to sing it even though she knew the subject matter was so controversial that it possibly could ruin her career. Her father had died after being turned away from a hospital because he was colored. Yes, Billie Holiday wanted and needed to sing Strange Fruit. When it was played live all the lights would turn down and she would not sing until everyone was quiet and still. She wanted the words to hit home, she needed them to know and understand what it meant to have the blues. A solitary light would shine on only her face and when the song was over the light would go out and when the lights came back up Billie Holiday would be off stage. It was a powerful message. Her label would not record the song so she found another label that would. She had courage too.
She spent nearly two years in prison for possession of narcotics and when she was released she could only sing concert halls as she lost her cabaret card. She drank more and late recordings cannot hide the damage done. Yet she still drew huge crowds to hear her sing. But she couldn’t stop drinking and was hospitalized with cirrhosis. She improved and was discharged her doctors imploring her to quit drinking. She tried but relapsed, tried again and couldn’t stop. Of course nowadays she would have rehab options but then nothing except to dry out. She tried, she certainly did not want to die. She got sick again, inevitably and was hospitalized and she died.
Eleanora was just 44 years old. She lived the blues and she died the same way.
Somewhere in my mid 20’s I decided that loving music so much meant that I should branch out and learn a bit more. I wanted to learn about the blues and I read a lot about the blues before I ever listened to a blues song. From those earliest days my understanding of what was and what wasn’t formed. I also read many things about Jim Crow and sharecropping. I read a lot about the civil rights movement which I had already done but now did even more of and I began the process of selecting which artist I wanted to begin with. Sometimes great choices are made without any real idea why you made them. Even though I knew she was more singer than what a traditional blues artist was I selected Billie Holiday and a collection called the Quintessential Billie Holiday. I fell in love with her voice. I always want to be in a quiet place when I listen to her. There is so much sadness, so much forlorn about her delivery. Yes, Billie knew the blues. Many of her songs are jazz standards but many like Bessie Smith before her, like her contemporary Ella Fitzgerald were every bit the blues song. I can’t give you songs. If you don’t know her music then find some and listen, really listen to the words of her song but more importantly how she delivers that song. She is the best.
You did good Eleanora, you did great.