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BILLIE HOLIDAY – “SHE FLEW IN THERE LIKE A BIRD” (PART ONE)

“I lowered the needle onto the spinning black disc. The music began with the notes of a piano stepping lightly as a dancer. Suddenly and quite unexpectedly a woman’s voice arrived. She flew in there among them like a bird and I realised that all the instruments had been waiting to welcome her.”


(These words were written by 14 years old Julia Blackburn on hearing Billie Holiday for the first time).


The story of Linda Kuehl, who struggled to complete a book about Billie Holiday, gleaned from tape recorded interviews with an estimated 150 people who had known Billie. Mae Barres, one of the interviewees on Linda Kuehl’s tapes, who became acquainted with Billie in 1928, said that Billie had remarked to her that Bobby Henderson was the only man she loved, “a good man and a beautiful pianist”. Henderson went on to play with Duke Ellington and Fats Waller (on the same piano!) and was rediscovered by the great music chronicler John Hammond in 1956. Henderson played at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957.


Linda’s life ended tragically. In January, 1979, she attended a Count Basie concert in Washington D.C. After the concert Linda wrote a suicide note and jumped to her death from a third-floor window.


Eleanora Fagan was born in Philadelphia on 7th April, 1915 to a 19 years old mother, Sarah Fagan, AKA Sadie, and a 16 years old father Clarence Holiday, a banjo player. By 1919 Sadie was with another man and Sadie’s half-sister Eva Miller had become Eleanora’s step mum. Eleanora’s Mum meanwhile had married again and become separated within a year. In 1924 Eleanora moved back in with her Mum. In 1925 Eleanora spent nine months at the House of Good Shepherd, a reform school. The following year Eleanora, just eleven years old, was raped by a neighbour.


A friend of Eleanora’s, Mary ‘Pony’ Kane was one of those who spoke on Linda’s tapes. She recalled how Eleanora soon picked up the ‘tricks of the trade’ at a brothel run by Alice Dean and developed a taste for snappy dresses. Eleanora was tall and looked old for her years and fitted into that environment. “She went to sing in nightclubs and maybe made two or three dollars a night. She’d be singing Stormy Weather and Stardust and all those popular tunes.” ‘Pony’ would also recall that there was plenty of bootleg corn whisky (White Lightning) around. Apparently Eleanora would provoke the men and they would chase her and beat her up in the street. Linda even asked her if she liked being beaten up on one of her tapes.

Eleanora stayed with her grandfather, Charles Fagan for a while and in 1929 Eleanora lived her Mum in a brothel in Harlem. When questioned by police she told them that she was 21 when she was in fact 14. She was found guilty of being ‘a vagrant and dissipated adult’ and sent to Welfare Island (renamed Roosevelt Island in 1973) which was situated in the middle of the East River, part of Manhattan borough, overshadowed by the Queensboro Bridge. Welfare Island was home to hospitals, a jail and even a lunatic asylum over the years.


The prison closed in 1935. After her release from Welfare Island, Eleanora sang with the Hat Hunter Band for $2 a night plus tips from waitressing on the floor. She was accompanied by Bobby Henderson on piano.When she started singing ‘professionally’ Eleanora took the name Billie after actress Billie Dove, a star of silent movies who specialised in paying damsels in distress. Booze and marijuana came more and more into Billie’s life. Lester Young, the great tenor saxophonist who gave Billie the nickname ‘Lady Day’ used to carry a leather zipper bad full of ‘weed’ around with him. (TO BE CONTINUED)


The wonderful illustration is by Zozan Kotan Bayraktar with her kind permission.


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