Happy 102nd Birthday, Billie Holiday!
The legendary Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan 102 years ago today in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Here are 10 BH Did-You-Knows:
- Holiday’s childhood was a tough one. Her parents were teenagers and never married. Her mother worked mostly on railroads and so left Holiday with her half-sister, Eva, and Eva’s mother-in-law in Baltimore. By nine, Holiday was sent to a Catholic reform school due to her truancy and other behavioral issues. Eventually, her mother opened a restaurant and Holiday dropped out of school at age 11 to help with its operation. At 12, Holiday was raped by a neighbor and, after a stint in protective custody as a state witness against the perpetrator, she began working as an errand girl for a brothel.
- At 14, Holiday was reunited with her mother, who had relocated to Harlem. Their landlady was the madam of a brothel and soon, both mother and daughter were working as prostitutes. Thankfully, Holiday, who had by then been exposed to the music of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, also began singing in Harlem nightspots. Her professional name came from actress Billie Dove and jazz musician Clarence Holiday, believed by many to be her long-absent father.
- Holiday’s close friend and musical collaborator, saxophonist Lester Young, was the person who gave her the nickname with which she would come to be so closely associated, Lady Day. She gave him his nickname, Prez, because of her deep respect for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
- Though Holiday’s singing style was distinctive and memorable, her vocal range was limited, just over one octave.
- Holiday’s 1941 recording of Gloomy Sunday, though by some to inspire suicides, was banned from airplay on the BBC until 2002.
- Holiday was a comic book fan as an adult; Captain Marvel was a particular favorite.
- Holiday, by then a heroin addict, was sent to prison in 1947 on a narcotics conviction. Eleven days after her release in March 1948, she performed before a sold-out house at Carnegie Hall.
- Holiday once named fellow vocalist Jo Stafford as her favorite musical artist; she admired Stafford, she said, because she was so ladylike.
- Nightclub performers in New York were required to have cabaret cards, a kind of municipal license to perform. Holiday’s narcotics-related legal troubles prevented her for acquiring a card, so she was unable to perform in NYC clubs for the final 12 years of her life.
- Holiday’s hardscrabble childhood left her with a lifelong fear of poverty. When she passed away, she had less than a dollar in the bank and had $750 strapped to her leg.
Happy birthday, Billie Holiday, wherever you may be!
Happy 107th Birthday, Johnny Mercer!
Lyricist, composer and singer Johnny Mercer, one of the greatest lyricists to contribute to the Great American Songbook, was born John Herndon Mercer 107 years ago today in Savannah, Georgia. Here are 10 JM Did-You-Knows:
- Mercer’s father was an attorney; his mother was his father’s secretary before she became his second wife.
- Mercer was exposed to a wide range of African-American music as a child. His aunt took him to minstrel and vaudeville shows, and he spent time with many black playmates (and his family’s servants). He also was drawn to Savannah’s black fishermen and street vendors, as well as African-American church services. As a teenager, he collected records by black artists such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.
- Mercer was singing in church choirs by age six, and within a few years, had demonstrated a penchant for memorizing all the popular songs of the day.
- His family frequently escaped Savannah’s heat at a mountain retreat near Ashville, North Carolina, and it was there that young Mercer learned to dance from none other than Arthur Murray himself.
- Mercer moved to NYC in 1928, taking bit parts as an actor and continuing to work on the songwriting he’d begun to experiment with back in Savannah. He took a job at a brokerage house to pay the bills, and began to sing around town. He once pitched a song to Eddie Cantor, and though Cantor didn’t buy the song, he was very encouraging to Mercer.
- Mercer preferred writing standalone songs to writing for musicals, where the lyrics had to fit the show, so when the revue format gave way to book musicals on Broadway, he moved to Los Angeles and took a job with RKO.
- Mercer founded Capitol Records with songwriter Buddy G. DeSylva and businessman Glenn Wallichs in 1942, investing $25,000. In 1955, he sold his share in the company for $20 million.
- Mercer was married to Ginger Mehan from 1931 until his death in 1976, but he had an on-and-off affair with Judy Garland.
- A fan once wrote Mercer, suggesting the song title I Wanna Be Around (to Pick Up the Pieces When Somebody Breaks Your Heart). Mercer quickly wrote a song by that title, and when it became a hit, he gave the fan half his royalties.
- Mercer was a distant cousin of Gen. George S. Patton.
Happy birthday, Johnny Mercer, wherever you may be!
Happy 120th Birthday, Ethel Waters!
Singer and actress Ethel Waters was born in Chester, Pennsylvania, 120 years ago today. Here are 10 EW Did-You-Knows:
- Ethel’s mother was a teenage rape victim, and hers was a difficult childhood. She was raised in poverty and she never lived anywhere more than 15 months. “I never was a child,” she would say later. “I never was cuddled, or liked, or understood by my family.”
- Waters married at 13, but the man she married abused her and she left him to become a maid at a hotel in Philadelphia. When she was 17, she sang two songs at a costume party at a nightclub and was such a hit that she was offered work performing at the Lincoln Theatre in Baltimore.
- That engagement launched Waters’ career on the black vaudeville circuit. In Atlanta, she found herself working at the same club as blues legend Bessie Smith, who insisted that Waters not perform the same kind of music she was, so during their time on the same bill, Smith sang the blues and Waters stuck to popular songs.
- In 1919, Waters made her way to Harlem, debuting at a black club there called Edmond’s Cellar.
- In 1921, Waters became the fifth black woman to make a record on the small Cardinal label. Before long, she moved up to Black Swan Records, where she recorded with Fletcher Henderson. In 1925, she signed with Columbia records, for whom she recorded the hit song, Dinah (in 1998, that recording was given the Grammy Hall of Fame Award, one of three such awards Waters’ 1920s recordings received).
- As her star continued to rise, Waters began to play “white” vaudevile on the Keith Circuit, which paid more and increased her fame.
- In 1929, Waters introduced the Harry Akst song, Am I Blue? It was a huge hit for her and became her signature song.
- In the early 1930s, Waters starred at the Cotton Club and appeared in Irving Berlin’s hit musical revue As Thousands Cheer; she was the first black woman to appear in an otherwise all-white show.
- In 1933, Waters was, thanks to her continuing nightclub work, her stage success and her national radio program, the highest paid performer on Broadway.
- In the 1940s, Waters’ career was on the wane and she experienced legal and health problems. In 1951, she wrote her autobiography, His Eye Is on the Sparrow with Charles Samuels. A later memoir, To Me, It’s Wonderful, established her birth year as 1896; she’d been lying about her age for some time in order to get a group insurance policy.
- In her later years, Waters began to focus on gospel music and spirituals, often touring with evangelist Billy Graham. In 1983, she was posthumously inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
Happy birthday, Ethel Waters, wherever you may be!
A brief but influential existence
Have you ever heard of the Black Swan record label? Neither had we (and it’s not something we’re proud of, given we’re all about pop and jazz of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s), but we were intrigued by Michael Pollak’s recent story in the New York Times and felt the Cladrite community might find it of interest, too.
Black Swan was the first major black-owned record company. It managed to remain in operation for just a couple of years, but its influence was wide-ranging and long-lived.
Black Swan was founded by one Harry H. Pace, a banking and insurance worker and disciple of W. E. B. Du Bois, who had previously paired with W. C. Handy in forming the Pace & Handy Music Company, a music publishing concern.
Nine years later, Pace made history when he parted with Handy and started Black Swan Records. Many of the established labels at the time would not record African-American performers, but Pace was not satisfied with merely rectifying that injustice, he set out to demonstrate the breadth of the talent in the African-American community, to, as Pollak writes in the Times, “challenge white stereotypes by recording not just comic and blues songs, but also sacred and operatic music and serious ballads.”
Black Swan would have achieved a certain degree of importance if only because the great Fletcher Henderson played piano on many of the label’s early recordings, but Black Swan rose to greater heights in signing Ethel Waters. Her blues recordings made a splash, and a vaudeville tour featuring Black Swan artists managed to make the label what Pollak terms “a national one.”
But Black Swan’s success led more established labels to realize what they’d been missing in not recording black artists, and in an effort to elevate the nation’s image of African-American performers, the label opted not to sign blues singer Bessie Smith to a contract.
That was a costly mistake.
The label did introduce the likes of Waters, Henderson, Trixie Smith and Alberta Hunter, but after only two years, it was relegated to the dustbin of American music history. But during its brief existence, it had, as Pollak notes, awakened the music business, an impact that is still being felt today and for which we are all the richer.
You think that money is everything
And yet it’s anybody’s spring.
Go make a fortune, become a king
And still it’s anybody’s spring.
And if you flash a bank roll
Do you suppose the brook would care?
Or that a rose would say
“There goes a millionaire!”
It’s more than diamonds around a ring
Because it’s anybody’s spring.
You may be born with the silver spoon
And yet it’s anybody’s moon
You couldn’t buy a ticket
To hear the first robin sing
It’s free because
It’s anybody’s spring.
Music by James Van Heusen, lyrics by Johnny Burke, 1944