Did Billie come from Philly, really?

November 27, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau

LONDON — A British biographer believes he can prove conclusively that jazz singer Billie Holiday, one of Baltimore's most prized hometown treasures, was really born in Philadelphia.

Baltimore has always cherished its reputation as Holiday's birthplace, recognized her preeminent place in jazz history and even erected a memorial statue on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Her voice, a copper-toned, bittersweet and perfectly phrased jazz instrument that triumphed over the pain of her life, has remained compelling for each succeeding generation since her death in 1959.

In her 1956 autobiography, "Lady Sings the Blues," she says she was born in Baltimore. The opening line is famous:

"Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was 18, she was 16, and I was 3."

She says she lived on South Durham Street and on Pennsylvania Avenue near North Avenue and that she left for New York at the end of the '20s.

But, unhappily, the autobiography, written with a New York reporter named William Dufty, is notoriously inaccurate. Holiday bragged she never worked on it nor read it.

"During most of the 1950s," says Stuart Nicholson, her new biographer, "she was usually and consistently under the effects of alcohol to dissipate her craving for hard drugs."

Mr. Nicholson, whose biography is about one-third finished, contends she was born in Philadelphia. He has a birth certificate to prove it. He's the first person to find one.

"I just wrote away for it," Mr. Nicholson says. "I asked them to run a search for Sadie Harris or Sadie Fagan on or around April 1915 and they came back with Sadie Harris [Holiday's mother].

"This proves beyond any doubt she was born in Philadelphia," he says.

He's a diligent researcher whose last book -- a biography of Ella Fitzgerald -- will come out in the United States next spring. A clarinetist before he became a writer, he led his own "jazz-rock" band for 10 years.

The birth certificate he got from the Philadelphia City Archives shows a girl named Elinore Harris was born at 2:30 a.m. on April 7, 1915, to 19-year-old Sadie Harris, who was born in Maryland.

Her father was listed as Frank DeViese, a 20-year-old waiter apparently from Philadelphia. There's a question mark in the box for his birthplace.

The Philadelphia records give her a different father than Clarence Holiday, a guitarist who played with McKinney's Cotton Pickers and the Fletcher Henderson orchestra.

Holiday treasured the image of a father who was an accomplished jazz musician and she, of course, took his name. Clarence Holiday died in 1937.

Amid the tangled records of Holiday's birth, Frank DeViese remains mysterious. He appears in the 1920 census in Philadelphia as Frank DeVeazy, Mr. Nicholson says, but he's not living with Sadie.

Mr. Nicholson sought birth records for Sadie Harris because of baptismal records at Baltimore's House of Good Shepherd, where Holiday stayed at least twice in 1925 and 1926.

At Good Shepherd, she was known as Eleanor Gough, a nameshe sometimes used as an adult. Her mother had married Phil Gough, a Baltimore longshoreman. At least one baptismal certificate lists the mother as Mrs. Sarah Gough, formerly Sarah Harris. She was born Sadie Fagan, probably in 1896.

Mr. Nicholson believes all this proves "conclusively" that Holiday was born in Philadelphia.

An earlier book "Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday," by Robert O'Meally, asserted Holiday was born in Philadelphia based on a Good Shepherd baptismal record.

Mr. O'Meally, an English professor at New York's Barnard College, used research done by the late Linda Lipnack Kuehl, another English professor who virtually devoted her life to Billie Holiday research.

But the issue remained unresolved. Holiday was apparently baptized three times at the home. At least one baptismal certificate records her birthplace as Baltimore.

Even if Mr. Nicholson has proved Holiday was no Baltimorean, he believes her style was formed there, influenced about equally by Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith records she listened to.

"There's no question her conception of jazz was formed in Baltimore," he says. "Because in 1933 [in New York] when she made her first records all the elements of her style were present and that couldn't have happened in three years."

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