“Who’s gonna wanna see me as an inmate, a junkie?”
— Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday was cursed in being one of those tormented, talented souls looking for a little fairness and peace in life. Destined to sing, her personal life was a disaster. But, when she sang, she did it with heart and all the misery she felt stemming from a disastrous childhood to a worse adulthood. In her 1956 memoir, “Lady Sings the Blues”, she described her childhood best, Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was eighteen, she was sixteen and I was three.
Born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915, in Philadelphia, to Sarah Julia “Sadie” Fagan and musician Clarence Halliday, her father abandoned Holiday and her mother to be on the road. She was passed to her older half-sister to be looked after while Sadie found work. Singer and actress Sybil Harris takes the audience to Holiday’s early beginnings. She holds nothing back no matter how brutal. For example, she reveals how Holiday’s next-door neighbor Wilbur Rich attempted to rape Billie when she was 11 years old but was stopped by Sadie. By age 14, she and Sadie worked as prostitutes and subsequently, went to jail. Billie left to join her mother in Harlem determined to work as a dancer. That didn’t go to well and she was cast aside. Suddenly, this beautiful soft voice started to sing “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” and she was instantly hired as a singer. Harris pauses in between songs to let the audience be aware of what is transpiring in Holiday’s life. The abuse the torch singer endured would have crushed the strongest of spirits. But, she doesn’t dwell on the pain. Instead, Harris uses that pain in her music and her songs and the outpour of sorrow that comes out can fill a 24-gallon barrel. She sings a medley of Holidays’ hits, like “Don’t Explain,” “God Bless the Child,” and the highly recognizable “Good Morning, Heartache.” Harris does an excellent job of reaching deep within and carefully pulling out the most tender and rawest of emotions Holiday felt when she sang. Harris embodied Holiday with dignity, pride and honesty.
Lord knows she didn’t have an easy life. People she trusted took advantage of her innocence. She was raped at ages 10 and 12 and she was the one who got arrested and served time. Eleanora Fagan became Billie Holiday to escape her past. It’s incredible that she lived until 44. She led a turbulent life with two failed marriages, child sexual abuse and died broke. Miss Holiday survived and left a legacy that is truly incredible and moving
Billie Holiday: Front and Center plays Saturday December 2nd at 8 p.m. and Sunday December 3rd at 3 p.m. at the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center, located at 4305 Degnan Blvd., Suite 101 in Los Angeles. For ticket information, call (800) 838-3006 or reserve online at