WeWalk: Behind the Scenes of Opening the Way

Opening the Way is a walking tour celebrating women's history in downtown Manhattan. It is a multifaceted new project developed by the award-winning nonprofit organization Women's eNews. The walk honors the achievements of women such as Margaret Sanger, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Ida B. Wells -- 21 women in all. This blog has been created to update fans of the walk on its exciting developments and expansion. Please join us in revitalizing history that has been ignored or forgotten!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Happy April Birthdays to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald

Billie Holiday

This month, we celebrate the birthdays of two jazz legends who have much in common, not the least of which is that New York City was integral to the success they made throughout their careers.

Bille Holiday was born Eleanora on April 7, 1915, to her mother Sarah Julia (known as Sadie), who had been kicked out by her parents for getting pregnant at 13 years old. Sadie was absent for most of her daughter’s childhood, leaving her to be raised by others. Eleanora skipped school often and was sentenced to attend Catholic reform school when she was 10 years old. At almost 12 years old, Eleanora and Sadie wound up working in a brothel, where Eleanora first heard the records of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith that would greatly influence the rest of her life.

In 1929, Eleanora and Sadie moved to Harlem, and Eleanora teamed up with a neighbor and began performing at various clubs. She changed her name to Bille Holiday, taken from her favorite actress Bille Dove and her father, Clarence Holiday. She was recording for Columbia Records in the late 1930s when she came across the song “Strange Fruit,” based on a poem about lynching. Although too controversial for Columbia producers, she recorded it for Commodore and later Verve Records, and became a huge hit. Her popularity skyrocketed, and she became known for her sultry, emotionally charged voice. She gave performances to packed audiences at Carnegie Hall and popular New York nightclubs, until she was banned from them after a conviction of drug possession. Her last performance was on May 25, 1959, at the Pheonix Theater in Greenwich Village.

Holiday died in New York at a young age after complications due to drug abuse. “Miss Holiday set a pattern during her most fruitful years that has proved more influential than that of almost any other jazz singer,” wrote the New York Times in her 1959 obituary. Today, the Billie Holiday Theatre is an independent, non-profit theater specializing in African American dramatic arts and named after the legend, located in Brooklyn, New York.

Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald was born shortly after Holiday on April 25, 1917. Her parents separated shortly after her birth, and she grew up in Yonkers, New York. After her mother died of injuries she suffered in a car accident, Ella became increasingly upset and entered a difficult part of her life. Her grades dropped, she frequently skipped school, and she was eventually sent to a reform school.

At 17 years old, Fitzgerald won a lucky drawing to compete in “Amateur Night” at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and there she made her debut appearance. She intended to dance, but when she became intimidated by another dance duo, she opted to sing instead—and won the first prize of $25.00. In the next years, she began performing with several Harlem-based bands, and in 1942 began a solo career under the Decca label. She joined Verve Records in 1955 and released “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook,” the first of eight Songbook sets she recorded, which eventually became her most commercially successful work.

By the end of her career, Ella recorded almost 70 records, sold over 40 million albums, and won 13 Grammy Awards. She was honored with the Presidential Medal of FreedomAmerica’s highest non-military honor—in 1992 by George H. W. Bush, and is considered one of the foremost American jazz musicians of all time. Called “the First Lady of Song,” her impressive three-octave vocal range changed the world of music. She died in 1996 after a long-term struggle with diabetes.

The two African-American jazz divas set high standards for their genre of music, and contemporary singer-songwriters are still influenced by each of them today. They both came from modest backgrounds and made their mark in different parts of New York City, contributing to its importance as an artistic and cultural landmark. Let us know what you think of their classics in the comments section below!