Lady Day: The Inspiring Life Of Eleanora Fagan Whose ‘Riffin the Scotch' Sold 5000 Copies In A Blink

Lady Day: The Inspiring Life Of Eleanora Fagan Whose ‘Riffin the Scotch' Sold 5000 Copies In A Blink

Remembering the jazz singer you may know as 'Lady Day' or 'Billie Holiday,' whose unforgettable song 'Riffin the Scotch' sold 5000 copies in just a month.

LylaUpdated: Friday, January 05, 2024, 03:36 PM IST
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Some lyrics play on the loop in your mind and so are the renditions of the popular singer who gave the world some soulful songs like I'll Be Seeing You, Velvet Mood, and Solitude among others. "You can't move forward in life by imitating anyone. If you are mimicking, it means you are emotionless. No two people on earth are the same, and the same goes with music. Otherwise let us not call it music. If I am going to sing like someone else, I don't need to sing at all." Whose words are these? It comes from Eleanora Fagan, a girl born in Philadelphia in 1915, who had an inspiring life worth knowing and an amazing music collection to her name.

Remembering Eleanora Fagan

Fagan was born to young parents, a 13-year-old mother and a 15-year-old father who was a jazz guitarist. Perhaps that's where she got her DNA for jazz. But her childhood was not easy at all. She went through several difficulties until she discovered her enchanting potential to perform music and conquer the world.

Maid, sex worker, and then world's 'Lady Day'

She dropped out of school at the age of 11 and quit her job as a maid to find work as a dancer in Harlem, and later started working in a brothel to support her mother.

At the age of 10, she was raped by her neighbor Wilbert Rich. Even after that, Billie, who was dragged into prostitution by their mother, was raped several times. Yes, that was the past of Lady Day AKA 'Billie Holiday'.

Embracing music, starting new life

In 1929, Billie Holiday moved to Harlem with her mother, and her life took a new turn. At age 14, Billie began singing in Harlem's nightclubs. She got the inspiration for her nickname from her favorite actress, Billie Dove, and took the name 'Holiday' from her father Clarence Halliday's last name. Producer John Hammond heard her sing at the Covens Club when she was 17, and Billie made her first recording in 1933 at the age of 18.

Lady Day's friend and fellow saxophonist Lester Young, known as Prez, gave her the nickname. Looking into her life and the musical journey, we can certainly learn that she has made significant contributions not only to jazz and blues but also to pop and soul.

Queen of improvisation (jazz)

Her singing style was unique and novel even for her bandmates. She was the queen of what is called 'improvisation' in jazz.

The artist is said to have pioneered that style of singing- elongating each word- but in her autobiography, she credits a blues singer Bessie Smith for inspiring her. Notably, Billie used to work for an aristocratic white lady and secretly listened to her Bessie Smith records for hours daily.

5000 copies in just a month

Her song ‘Riffin the Scotch' sold 5000 copies in just a month. Hammond admits that his musical taste was stirred after listening to her. "This girl is the first jazz singer I've ever heard who actually sings like a genius jazz instrument!" he said.

Not just singing, acting came her way too

In 1935, Billie also acted in the famous jazz musician Duke Ellington's play 'Rhapsody of Negro Life'. Jazz gave Billie a brand new life and in return, her singing brought a different dimension into the traditional jazz. The hallmark of Billie's singing style was her suffering, her tough childhood, her love affairs and the effortless reflections of her pain in her music which brought the traditional jazz standards back to life once again. After comparing her with the other jazz singers from her era, one realizes that she did not need any 'gimmicks'.

Lady Day as an actor

Her delivery was direct, emotional and mind-blowing. Her cry was pure and heart-wrenching. Billie was not a trained singer. Then how did Billie, who worked as a messenger for prostitutes in the streets of Baltimore, captured the hearts of millions? Only because she was honest with her feelings.

Admiring her works & life

Her singing was like a ‘bhajan’ sung by a priest in a small temple, which is sometimes simpler yet more effective than a complex ‘raga’ sung by a professional in a classical manner.

She had a unique style of stretching words and phrases to create swing with off-beat timing that made her sound like a true jazz diva who had mastered the art of improvisation. And most importantly, she was the only and first black woman to sing in an all-white band! This was quite revolutionary for the time in which Billie was born. While touring with her band, Billie was constantly faced with apartheid and racism. Like Nina Simone (in fact even before Nina), Billie worked for the Civil Rights Movement through her music.

Lyla is a Western singer-songwriter and the co-founder of Woodstock Studios in Mumbai. Nearly devoting a decade to jazz and blues, she writes "Unmute" in the Free Press Journal expressing her words after passionately listening to these Western genres of music and curiously taking inspiration from the artists.

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