Billie Holiday for the First Time Tells Why She Left Shaw & Basie: ‘Too Many Bad Kicks’

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Billie Holiday and her dog, Mister, in New York City during February 1947

(Photo: William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress)

CHICAGO—You sit with Billie Holiday and watch her smoke cigarettes chain fashion. The first thing that strikes you is her frankness.

“I’ll never sing with a dance band again,” she tells you. “Because it never works out right for me. They wonder why I left Count Basie, and why I left Artie Shaw. Well, I’ll tell you why—and I’ve never told this before.

“Basie had too many managers—too many guys behind the scenes who told everybody what to do. The Count and I got along fine. And the boys in the band were wonderful all the time. But it was this and that, all the time, and I got fed up with it. Basie didn’t fire me; I gave him my notice.

Bad Kicks With Shaw

“Artie Shaw was a lot worse. I had known him a long time, when he was strictly from hunger around New York, long before he got a band. At first, we worked together OK, then his managers started belly-aching. Pretty soon it got so I would sing just two numbers a night. When I wasn’t singing, I had to stay backstage. Artie wouldn’t let me sit out front with the band. Last year, when we were at the Lincoln Hotel, the hotel management told me I had to use the back door. That was all right. But I had to ride up and down in the freight elevators, and every night Artie made me stay upstairs in a little room without a radio or anything all the time.”

“Finally it got so I would stay up there, all by myself, reading everything I could get my hands on, from 10 o’clock to nearly 2 in the morning, going downstairs to sing just one or two numbers. Then one night ... Artie said he couldn’t let me sing. I was always given two shots on each program. The real trouble was this: Shaw wanted to sign me to a five-year contract and when I refused, it burned him. He was jealous of the applause I got when I made one of my few appearances with the band each night.”

Never Paid For Record

You ask Billie why she didn’t make more records with Shaw. You remember that the only side she made, on Bluebird, was a thing titled “Any Old Time,” and was really wonderful.

“That’s a laugh,” she answers. “Artie never paid me for that record. Just before it came out, I simply got enough of Artie’s snooty, know-it-all mannerisms, and the outrageous behavior of his managers, and left the band. I guess Artie forgot about ‘Any Old Time.’ I know he never paid me. With Basie I got $70 a week—with Artie I got $65. When I make my own records I get $150. That’s another reason I left Shaw.

“One afternoon, we were driving along in Artie’s car to a one-night stand. We passed an old man on the road who had a beard. I asked Artie if he had ever worn a beard, and that I’d bet he sure’d look funny if he wore one.

“Chuck Petersen, George Arus, Les Jenkins, and a couple of other boys in the band were also in the car. So, we were all surprised when Artie said ‘I used to wear a beard all the time—when I was farming my own farm a few years back.’ I asked Artie if he looked good or bad with a beard—and I was just joking, you know, to make conversation on a long drive.

“‘Indeed I did look fine with a beard,’ Artie said. ‘I looked exactly like Jesus Christ did when he was young.’”

Billie slapped her thigh, lighted another cigaret, and continued.

Gave Him A Name

“You should have heard the boys and me roar at that. We got a bang out of it. Artie looked mad, because he had been serious. So, I said, ‘We’ll just call you Jesus Christ, King of the Clarinet, and his Band.’

“Now here’s the payoff—the story got out around Boston and even today, we hear a lot of the musicians refer to Artie as ‘Jesus Christ and his Clarinet.’”

You figure you’ve heard enough dirt about the pitfalls of a young girl with a dance band and you ask Billie to tell you something about herself. She comes through with the word that she is Baltimore born, and that she got her first job when she was 14 years old, after she and her mother moved to New York.

Billie Gets Desperate

“This is the truth. Mother and I were starving. It was cold. Father had left us and remarried when I was 10. Mother was a housemaid and couldn’t find work. I tried scrubbing floors, too, but I just couldn’t do it.

“We lived on 145th Street near Seventh Avenue. One day, we were so hungry we could barely breathe. I started out the door. It was cold as all hell and I walked from 145th to 133rd down Seventh Avenue, going in every joint trying to find work. Finally, I got so desperate I stopped in the Log Cabin Club, run by Jerry Preston. I told him I wanted a drink. I didn’t have a dime. But I ordered gin (it was my first drink—I didn’t know gin from wine) and gulped it down. I asked Preston for a job ... told him I was a dancer. He said to dance. I tried it. He said I stunk. I told him I could sing. He said sing. Over in the corner was an old guy playing a piano. He struck ‘Travelin’’ and I sang. The customers stopped drinking. They turned around and watched. The pianist, Dick Wilson, swung into ‘Body And Soul.’ Jeez, you should have seen those people—all of them started crying. Preston came over, shook his head and said, ‘Kid, you win.’ That’s how I got my start.

Recording With Goodman

”First thing I did was get a sandwich. I gulped it down. Believe me—the crowd gave me $18 in tips. I ran out the door. Bought a whole chicken. Ran up Seventh Avenue to my home. Mother and I ate that night—and we have been eating pretty well since.”

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August 2019
Cécile McLorin Salvant
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