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)

Benny Goodman used Billie on a record (Columbia) of “My Mother’s Son In Law” when [Jack] Teagarden, [Gene] Krupa and others were in his recording band—before he really organized his present combo. The disc is an item today, not only because of the fine instrumental work, but because it was Holiday’s first side. She was pretty lousy. You tell her so and she grins. “But I was only 15 then,” she said, “And I was scared as the devil.”

She Doesn’t Sing

You tell Billie you think you’ve got enough dope for a little story, but that one thing worries you. That is—why does she sing like she does—what’s behind it?

“Look, Dex,” Billie answers. “I don’t think I’m singing. I feel like I am playing a horn. I try to improvise like Les Young, like Louis Armstrong, or someone else I admire. What comes out is what I feel. I hate straight singing. I have to change a tune to my own way of doing it. That’s all I know.”

Sad Love Life

You ask her one more thing, recalling how at various times Billie has been reported ready to marry. She shows her frankness again. “I’ve loved three men,” she tells you. “One was Marion Scott, when I was a kid. He works for the post office now. The other was Freddie Green, Basie’s guitar man. But Freddie’s first wife is dead and he has two children and somehow it didn’t work out. The third was Sonny White, the pianist, but like me, he lives with his mother and our plans for marriage didn’t gel. That’s all.”

Billie says she isn’t satisfied now. She wants to get somewhere. Maybe on the stage. She wants to make money—a lot of it. She wants to buy a big home for her mother. She doesn’t expect any happiness—she is used to taking hard knocks, tough breaks. And she admits she is envious of Maxine Sullivan and other colored singers who have gotten so much farther ahead than she. Someday, she thinks, she’ll get a real break. But she’s not very optimistic about it. Billie Holiday is convinced the future will be as unglamorous and unprofitable as her past. DB

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August 2019
Cécile McLorin Salvant
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