Sunday, 31 July 2016

Mythology: Narcissus

Sometimes I get my ideas for new thematic unity by the recollection of a song. Sometimes a single line is all it takes... As in today's case. Here's the song that inspired this new unity:

In my opinion, Genesis, the British supergroup, had their most creative years in the first half of the 70s. Selling England By The Pound is one of the greatest albums of all time and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway was a great album as well. Musical Box is one of my favorite songs, which could be a part of a future thematic unity. Supper’s Ready, today's song, is an extended epic that takes up a whole side of a vinyl album (its length is around 23 minutes) and would become the closing song of their live shows. At around the 10 minute mark, there's the line: "We watch in reverence, as Narcissus is turned to a flower." This is the line that inspired me to do this current theme, which will demonstrate how mythology affects art. This unity will appear every Saturday and/or Sunday for the next few weeks. Our first subject is Narcissus. Of course.

The painting above is by famous (and personal favorite) Italian painter Caravaggio, circa 1597–1599. It depicts Narcissus gazing at his own reflection. Several versions of the myth have survived from ancient sources. The classic version is by Ovid, found in book 3 of his Metamorphoses (completed 8 AD). The story is as follows:

A long time ago, in the Boeotian realm of Thespiae, a boy was born to the River God Cephissus and the Naiad Liriope. Even in infancy the other nymphs, Dryads and Naiads and Oreads, of the mountain vales and forest glades could see majesty in the young boy's form. Such a sight to behold as baby became boy! His fair mother cared deeply for her boy, and sought out the legendary seer, Tiresias, '"fam'd far and near for knowing things to come", for comfort as to his fate. Liriope asked the prophet if her son would enjoy a long life, or was doomed to a short one. Seeing the gift of beauty the gods had empowered the boy with beyond all other mortals, the wise sage replied "If e'er he knows himself he surely dies". "Long liv'd the dubious mother in suspence, 'till time unriddled all the prophet's sense". So the boy grew older yet, and his handsome visage stronger yet. Narcissus was the name his mother had given him, and all who set eyes upon him were stopped dead in their tracks at the sight of him. His sixteenth year began, and the list of maids who had declared their adoration for him swelled greater yet, each confession another brick in his tower of pride, each doomed to fail.

The above photo is of a statue by French sculptor Paul Dubois, from 1867. It is found in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.

Here's a beautiful song called Narcissus by Patricia Barber from Chicago, US:

To continue with the myth:

Then, one day as Narcissus hunted in the forest glades, one of the Oreads, the mountain nymphs, caught sight of him for the first time. Echo was her name, and this moment would forever haunt her destiny. Poor Echo was a cursed being. For it was the sport of Zeus the Thunderer and King of the Gods to make merry with the many nymphs of the world in secret, when Hera his wife's gaze would be averted. Many times would she have caught her husband in the act were it not for stories Echo would tell her, to delay her coming. The time came one day when the deception was laid bare before the fearsome Queen of Olympus, and the roots of the mountains shivered before her fury. "That tongue, for this thy crime, which could so many subtle tales produce, shall be hereafter but of little use". Forever would the nymph be cursed, unable to speak except the words used by others. It is from Echo's name that the aural effect today takes its name. Now Echo clapped her eyes upon the perfect youth stalking the undergrowth. Young Echo was overjoyed to see Narcissus for once alone, for usually he was trailed by a vast entourage of sycophants. But, with tears of frustration, she was unable to speak and put her feelings into words.

The painting above depicting Narcissus is by Hungarian painter Benczúr Gyula (1881).

Here's one of the most recent songs on the subject, Narcissus Is Back by French group Christine and the Queens:

Back to the myth:

Long did she follow him through the woods, desperate to open her heart to Narcissus. Then, at last Narcissus is aware of her presence. Turning to see her, he laughed at her pitiable obsession, and bid her turn away. Crushed by his words, the tearful Echo took to melancholic days in solitary caves, shady glades of the woods and other dark places of despair. But the vengeful goddess Nemesis was angered by Narcissus, and wove her plans of retribution.

The painting above is called Echo And Narcissus, by English painter John William Waterhouse (1903).

Here's Narcissus by Canadian Alanis Morissette:

But what happened next? This:

So fair Narcissus, weary from his long hunt, came to the forest clearing. Wiping the sweat from his brow, he knelt at the side of a crystal pool of cool water. As he bent down to splash water on his heated face, a new kind of warmth flooded through him, as he saw a being of astonishing beauty before him. Such a handsome youth, the very image of the Olympians! Sparkling eyes, hair that Apollo himself would be loath to show. So Narcissus was consumed by the fire that was his own, though he knew not who the perfect being was in truth.

The painting above is Metamorphosis of Narcissus by famous Spanish painter Salvador Dali (1937).

And here's a song about a female Narcissus, called Narcisissma by one of my favorite singer-songwriters, American Don McLean:

And here's the rest of the myth:

Long did Narcissus lie there, staring into the pool, thinking not of sleep or food, as his body wasted away, entranced by the passion afire within the calm ripples. To the trees of the glade Narcissus cries, languishing for he cannot ever reach his beloved, cruelly separated as they are by the surface of the pool. "When my arms I stretch, he stretches his. His eye with pleasure on my face he keeps, he smiles my smiles, and when I weep he weeps. When e'er I speak, his moving lips appear to utter something, which I cannot hear". Then the hammer blow falls, when fair Narcissus sees the truth laid bare. "It is myself I see! The happy delusion is a part of me!" A terrible sorrow gripped the proud youth for the vanity of his desire. So totally entranced was he with his own image, he did declare "I wish him absent whom I most desire, and now I faint with grief; my fate draws nigh; in all the pride of blooming youth I die. Death will the sorrows of my heart relieve!" So Narcissus turned back to the pool, as his warm tears splashed upon the surface. Now the image is but ripples and flashes, and the boy's sorrow grows "whither dost thou fly?" he laments. The Autumn began to fade, and the glorious features began to dwindle in Narcissus's form. All those things which made him desired slipped away, but there was one nearby the pool who stood there still. For Echo could not bare to leave his side, and her tears for Narcissus flowed.

So Narcissus breathed his last, transfixed forever by his own reflection, and ever after one who possesses such vanity has been known as Narcissistic. Echo's heart was broken. Out of respect for her the other Naiads and Dryads sought to gather the boy's remains, but upon reaching the shore of the pool, found not bones and flesh there. In his place stood a stalk of verdant green, crowned with golden blossoms, that most majestic plant which now bears his name...

More paintings depicting Narcissus were made by Poussin, Turner, Carpioni, Lagrenée, Roos and Boltraffio.

Other sculptors that sculpted Narcissus include Gibson, Gréberf and Netzer.

Now, some more songs. Here's Narcissus by Californian Rock band Say Anything. It's good:

Here's a different take on the myth, by Canadian urban artist Sean Leon:

Hedley is also Canadian (a group). Their song is Narcissist:

Narcissus in a Red Dress is a song by Californian Indie rockers The Like:

There's a Narcissus that originates in South Korea, sung by Kim Heechul and Wheein:

Russian composer Nikolai Tcherepnin wrote his ballet Narcisse et Echo, Op. 40 in 1911 for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and was danced by Nijinski.

From England here are funny guys Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band with their own (short) Narcissus:

Another contemporary song, Narcissus Soaking Wet by the American band Chris Robinson Brotherhood:

Here's an Alt Rock version: Narcissus by Softengine from Finland:

Here's UK progressive metal band The Threshold with their own Narcissus:

US Hip Hop artist Tonedeff, born Pedro Antonio Rojas, Jr. gave us his own Narcissus:

Finally, Greek Rock band Septic Flesh also have a song called Narcissus:

There's also a cartoon, with a (simplified) telling of the myth:

A famous gay cult film from 1971 was called Pink Narcissus and it involves the narcissistic erotic fantasies of a hustler. Here, you can watch all of it:

A wonderful Oscar-winning film by the great Michael Powell was Black Narcissus (1947) with Deborah Kerr, David Farrar, Flora Robson and Jean Simmons. It's visually beautiful, best watched on the big screen. Alternatively, you can watch it here:

Literature was also greatly influenced by the myth: among them, we find Stendhal's novel Le Rouge et le Noir (1830), André Gide's study Le Traité du Narcisse ('The Treatise of the Narcissus, 1891), the only novel by Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist, Hermann Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund, Herman Melville's Moby Dick and others.

Also the myth influenced the birth of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, Seamus Heaney, as well as A. E. Housman in his poem Look not in my Eyes from A Shropshire Lad. (The latter being one of my all-time favorite poems).

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Billy Tipton

Today, we add a representative of yet another group of people in our list: Billy Tipton is our first trans male artist.

Born Dorothy Lucille Tipton in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in 1914, Tipton grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, where he was raised by an aunt after his parents' divorce. He subsequently rarely saw his father, G. W. Tipton, a pilot who sometimes took him for airplane rides. As a high-school student, Tipton went by the nickname Tippy and became interested in music, especially jazz, studying piano and saxophone. He returned to Oklahoma for his final year of high school and joined the school band there.

As Tipton began a more serious music career, he adopted his father's nickname, Billy, and more actively worked to pass as male by binding his breasts and padding his pants. At first, Tipton only presented as male in performance, but by 1940 was living as a man in private life as well. Two of Tipton's female cousins, with whom Tipton maintained contact over the years, were the only persons known to be privy to Tipton's assigned sex.

In 1936, Tipton was the leader of a band playing on KFXR. In 1938, he joined Louvenie's Western Swingbillies, a band that played on KTOK and at Brown's Tavern. In 1940 he was touring the Midwest playing at dances with Scott Cameron's band. In 1941 he began a two and a half-year run performing at Joplin, Missouri's Cotton Club with George Meyer's band, then toured for a time with Ross Carlyle, then played for two years in Texas.

In 1949, Tipton began touring the Pacific Northwest with George Meyer. While this tour was far from glamorous, the band's appearances at Roseburg, Oregon's Shalimar Room were recorded by a local radio station, and so recordings exist of Tipton's work during this time, including If I Knew Then and Sophisticated Swing.

Tipton began playing piano alone at the Elks club in Longview, Washington. In Longview, he started the Billy Tipton Trio, which consisted of Tipton on piano, Dick O'Neil on drums, and Kenny Richards (and later Ron Kilde) on bass. The trio gained local popularity.

During a performance on tour at King's Supper Club in Santa Barbara, California, a talent scout from Tops Records heard them play and got them a contract. The Billy Tipton Trio recorded two albums of jazz standards for Tops: Sweet Georgia Brown and Billy Tipton Plays Hi-Fi on Piano, both released early in 1957. Among the pieces performed were Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man, Willow Weep for Me, What'll I Do, and Don't Blame Me. In 1957, the albums sold 17,678 copies, a respectable sum for a small independent record label.

From the first album, here's Sweet Georgia Brown:

And here's Don't Blame Me:

Finally, here's The Man I Love:

From the second album, here's Begin The Beguine:

After the albums' success, the Billy Tipton Trio was offered a position as house band at the Holiday Hotel in Reno, Nevada, and Tops Records invited the trio to record four more albums. Tipton declined both offers, choosing instead to move to Spokane, Washington, where he worked as a talent broker and the trio was the house band at Allen's Tin Pan Alley, performing weekly. He played mainly swing standards rather than the jazz he preferred. His performances included skits in the vaudeville tradition, in which he imitated celebrities such as Liberace and Elvis Presley. In some of these sketches, he played a little girl. He mentored young musicians at the Dave Sobol Theatrical Agency.

In the late 1970s, worsening arthritis forced Tipton to retire from music.

Early in his career, Tipton presented as a male only professionally, continuing to present as a woman otherwise. He spent those early years living with a woman named Non Earl Harrell, in a relationship that other musicians thought of as lesbian. The relationship ended in 1942. Tipton's next relationship, with a singer known only as "June", lasted for several years.

For seven years, Tipton lived with Betty Cox, who was 19 when they became involved. Cox remembered Tipton as "the most fantastic love of my life." Tipton kept the secret of his extrinsic sexual characteristics from Betty by inventing a story of having been in a serious car accident resulting in damaged genitals and broken ribs, and that it was necessary to bind the damaged chest to protect it. From then on, this was what he would tell the women in his life.

Tipton was never formally married in a ceremony, but several women had drivers' licenses identifying them as Mrs. Tipton. In 1960, Tipton ended his relationship with Cox to settle down with nightclub dancer and stripper Kitty Kelly (later known as Kitty Oakes), who was known professionally as "The Irish Venus". They were involved with their local PTA and with the Boy Scouts. They adopted three sons, John, Scott, and William. After Tipton's death, Kitty gave several interviews about him and their relationship. In early interviews, she said, "He gave up everything... There were certain rules and regulations in those days if you were going to be a musician," in reference to breaking into the 1920−30s music industry. William described Tipton as a good father who loved to go on Scout camping trips.

Because of the couple's ongoing arguments over how they should raise the boys, Tipton left Kitty in the late 1970s, moved into a mobile home with their sons (two of their sons had run away from home after being physically abused by Kitty), and resumed an old relationship with a woman named Maryann. He remained there, living in poverty, until his death.

In 1989, at the age of 74, Tipton had symptoms he attributed to emphysema and refused to call a doctor. He was actually suffering from a hemorrhaging peptic ulcer, which, untreated, was fatal. It was while paramedics were trying to save Tipton's life, with son William looking on, that William learned that his father had female anatomy. Tipton was pronounced dead at Valley General Hospital. The coroner shared this with the rest of the family. In an attempt to keep the secret, Kitty arranged for his body to be cremated, but later after financial offers from the media, Kitty and one of their sons went public with the story. The first newspaper article was published the day after Tipton's funeral and it was quickly picked up by wire services. Stories about Tipton appeared in a variety of papers including tabloids such as National Enquirer and Star, as well as more reputable papers such as New York Magazine and The Seattle Times. Tipton's family even made talk show appearances.

Two wills were left by Billy Tipton: one handwritten and not notarized that left everything to William Jr.; and the second, notarized, leaving everything to John Clark, the first child the Tiptons adopted. A court upheld the first will, and William inherited almost everything, with John and Scott receiving one dollar each. According to a 2009 episode of the documentary program The Will: Family Secrets Revealed, which featured interviews with all three sons, it was revealed that a final court judgment awarded all three sons an equal share of his wife Kitty Tipton's estate (not Billy Tipton), which, after lawyers' fees, amounted to $35,000 for each son.

There were works of art inspired by Tipton's life. The 1991 song "Tipton" by folksinger Phranc was one of them:

Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man is a 1995 short film based on his life and career. Stevie Wants to Play the Blues was a play based on Tipton's life written by Eduardo Machado and performed in Los Angeles. The Slow Drag was a play based on Tipton's life by Carson Kreitzer performed in New York City and London. An opera based on Tipton's life, Billy, was staged in Olympia, Washington. Trumpet is a novel by Jackie Kay inspired by Tipton's life. The Opposite Sex Is Neither, a theatrical revue by noted trans woman Kate Bornstein, features Billy Tipton.

Billy's Thing is an unreleased track by Jill Sobule:

The Legend of Billy Tipton by the punk band The Video Dead was about his life. A band was formed that called themselves The Billy Tipton Memorial Saxophone Quartet. Kill Me, Por Favor is a short story including a section about Billy Tipton in Ry Cooder's book Los Angeles Stories.

Finally, the singer-songwriter and cabaret artist Nellie McKay performed an original biographical show about Tipton, "“A Girl Named Bill—The Life and Times of Billy Tipton,” at the New York nightclub 54 Below on August 5–9, 2014. Here's an excerpt:

Billy Tipton didn't have a huge career, but his unusual life managed to inspire a lot of people and became an important part of the LGBTQI legacy.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Billie Holiday

From all the ladies that I've presented in the last two weeks, I like Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter and Gladys Bentley. I love Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters and Josephine Baker. But my absolute favorite is the lady that I'm presenting today: Lady Day. If raw pain was a person, her name would be Billie Holiday.

Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia, 1915. Her parents, Clarence and Sarah "Sadie" Fagan were an unmarried teenaged couple. Not long after Holiday's birth, Clarence abandoned his family to pursue a career as a jazz banjo player and guitarist. Sarah moved to Philadelphia at age 19, after being evicted from her parents' home for becoming pregnant. With no support from her parents, Holiday's mother arranged for the young Holiday to stay with her older married half-sister, Eva Miller, who lived in Baltimore.

Holiday suffered from her mother's absences and being left in others' care for much of the first ten years of her life. By early 1929, Holiday joined her mother in Harlem. Their landlady, Florence Williams, ran a brothel at West 140th Street. Holiday's mother became a prostitute and, within a matter of days of arriving in New York, Holiday, who had not yet turned fourteen, also became a prostitute at $5 a client. On May 2, 1929, the house was raided, and Holiday and her mother were sent to prison. After spending some time in a workhouse, her mother was released in July, followed by Holiday in October.

In Harlem she started singing in various night clubs. Holiday took her professional pseudonym from Billie Dove, an actress she admired, and the musician Clarence Holiday, her probable father. The producer John Hammond, who first heard Holiday in early 1933, arranged for Holiday to make her recording debut, at age 18, in November 1933 with Benny Goodman, singing two songs: Your Mother's Son-in-Law and Riffin' the Scotch, the latter being her first hit. Hammond was impressed by Holiday's singing style and said of her, "Her singing almost changed my music tastes and my musical life, because she was the first girl singer I'd come across who actually sang like an improvising jazz genius."

Here's Your Mother's Son-in-Law:

And here's Riffin' the Scotch:

In 1935 Holiday was signed to Brunswick Records by John Hammond to record current pop tunes with Teddy Wilson in the new "swing" style for the growing jukebox trade. They were given free rein to improvise the material. Holiday's improvisation of the melody line to fit the emotion was revolutionary. Their first collaboration included What a Little Moonlight Can Do, and Miss Brown to You. Billie Holiday's What a Little Moonlight Can Do was deemed her "claim to fame."

Here's the great What a Little Moonlight Can Do:

And here's the equally great Miss Brown to You:

Another frequent accompanist was the tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who had been a boarder at her mother's house in 1934 and with whom Holiday had a special rapport. He said: "Well, I think you can hear that on some of the old records, you know. Some time I'd sit down and listen to 'em myself, and it sound like two of the same voices, if you don't be careful, you know, or the same mind, or something like that." Young nicknamed her "Lady Day", and she, in turn, dubbed him "Prez".

1936 was another great year for Billie. I Cried for You was a giant hit for her record company. I say this, because Holiday was never given any royalties for her work, instead being paid a flat fee, which saved the company a lot of money.

From the same year, here's another great song, A Fine Romance:

Also from 1936, Summertime was a big hit. It was the first time the jazz standard charted under any artist:

From 1937, here's another gem, He's Funny That Way:

Also from 1937, her only #1 Pop single, Carelessly:

From her brief collaboration with Count Basie and his Orchestra (1937-38), here's They Can't Take That Away From Me:

After her collaboration with Count Basie ended, she worked with Artie Shaw and his orchestra. Holiday broke new ground with Shaw, becoming one of the first female African American vocalists to work with a white orchestra. Promoters objected to Holiday—for her race and for her unique vocal style—and she ended up leaving the orchestra out of frustration.

Because she was under contract to a different record label and possibly because of her race, there are no surviving live recordings of Holiday with Artie Shaw's band.

She was still recording with Teddy Wilson though. From 1938, here's When You're Smiling:

Now we get to the part were we talk about Billie's absolute favorite song of mine: Holiday was recording for Columbia in the late 1930s when she was introduced to Strange Fruit, a song based on a poem about lynching written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx. Meeropol used the pseudonym "Lewis Allan" for the poem, which was set to music and performed at teachers' union meetings. She performed it at the Café Society club in 1939, with some trepidation, fearing possible retaliation. Holiday later said that the imagery in Strange Fruit reminded her of her father's death and that this played a role in her resistance to performing it.

When Holiday's producers at Columbia found the subject matter too sensitive, she recorded the song with the Commodore label instead. This ballad is considered to be one of her signature songs, and the controversy that surrounded it - some radio stations banned the record - helped make it a hit. But the main thing was that it is an instant classic, that would give anyone goosebumps, even today. In fact, with all the race killings going on lately, it may be even more topical today. Here it is:

It isn't just me: the song was such an inspiration for UB40, that they included their own version in their first album in 1980:

And here's Diana Ross' version, during her Oscar nominated performance as Billie in Lady Sings The Blues (1972):

1939 was a productive year for Billie: here are two more great songs of hers from that year. First, Long Gone Blues:

Also, Them There Eyes:

She married James Monroe in 1941. Already known to drink, Holiday picked up her new husband's habit of smoking opium. The marriage didn't last, but Holiday's problems with substance abuse continued. That same year she co-wrote and recorded God Bless the Child, which became Holiday's most popular and covered record. This is my 2nd favorite song of hers:

Here's a cover by Jazz Rock band Blood, Sweat and Tears (1969):

In 1942, Holiday recorded Trav'lin Light with Paul Whiteman for a new label, Capitol Records. Because she was under contract to Columbia, she used the pseudonym "Lady Day." The song was a hit.

In September 1943, "Life" magazine wrote: "She has the most distinct style of any popular vocalist and is imitated by other vocalists."

Holiday signed to Decca records in 1944. Her first Decca recording was Lover Man (#16 Pop, # 5 R&B), one of her biggest hits.

A month later, she recorded Don't Explain, which she wrote after she caught her husband, Jimmy Monroe, with lipstick on his collar.

She paid back her husband with his own coin: she hooked up with trumpeter Joe Guy, and with him she started using heroin. After the death of her mother in October 1945, Holiday began drinking more heavily and escalated her drug use to ease her grief.

Billie Holiday was bisexual, and had a number of relationships with women. The most famous of these was probably an affair with actress Tallulah Bankhead, which inspired a marvelously catty letter after the breakup. Bankhead was apparently unhappy with her appearance in Holiday's memoir. Holiday responded:

"While I was working out of town, you didn't mind talking to Doubleday (editor's note: Holiday's publishers) and suggesting behind my damned back that I had flipped and/or made up those little mentions of you in my book. Baby, Cliff Allen and Billy Heywood are still around. My maid who was with me at the Strand isn't dead either. There are plenty of others around who remember how you carried on so you almost got me fired out of the place. And if you want to get shitty, we can make it a big shitty party. We can all get funky together!"

In 1946, Holiday recorded Good Morning Heartache. Although the song failed to chart, it was very popular and remained in her live shows throughout her career:

It was a hit, however, for Diana Ross in 1972 (#34 Pop, #20 R&B):

Despite her personal problems, Holiday remained a major star in the Jazz world - and even a force to be reckoned with in Pop music as well. In 1946, she won the Metronome Magazine popularity poll. She appeared with her idol Louis Armstrong in the 1947 film New Orleans, albeit playing the role of a maid. Unfortunately, Holiday's drug use caused her a great professional setback that same year. She was arrested and convicted for narcotics possession in 1947. Sentenced to one year and a day of jail time, Holiday went to a federal rehabilitation facility in Alderston, West Virginia.

Released the following year, Holiday faced new challenges. Because of her conviction, she was unable to get the necessary license to play in cabarets and clubs. Holiday, however, could still perform at concert halls and had a sold-out show at the Carnegie Hall not long after her release. With some help from John Levy, a New York club owner, Holiday was later to get to play in New York's Club Ebony. Levy became her boyfriend and manager by the end of the 1940s, joining the ranks of the men who took advantage of Holiday. Also around this time, she was again arrested for narcotics, but she was acquitted of the charges.

In October 1949, Holiday recorded Crazy He Calls Me which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2010. Gabler (her record company's A&R man) said the hit was her most successful recording for Decca after Lover Man.

By the 1950s, Holiday's drug abuse, drinking, and relationships with abusive men caused her health to deteriorate. She appeared on the ABC reality series The Comeback Story to discuss attempts to overcome her misfortunes. Her later recordings showed the effects of declining health on her voice, as it grew coarse and no longer projected its former vibrancy.

Holiday's autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, was ghostwritten by William Dufty and published in 1956. To accompany her autobiography, Holiday released an LP in June 1956 entitled Lady Sings the Blues. The album featured four new tracks, among them her last great classic, the title track:

On March 28, 1957, Holiday married Louis McKay, a Mafia enforcer. McKay, like most of the men in her life, was abusive, but he did try to get her off drugs. They were separated at the time of her death, but McKay had plans to start a chain of Billie Holiday vocal studios, à la Arthur Murray dance schools.

By early 1959 Holiday had cirrhosis of the liver. She stopped drinking on doctor's orders, but soon relapsed. On May 31, 1959, Holiday was taken to Metropolitan Hospital in New York for treatment of liver and heart disease. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, had been targeting Holiday since at least 1939. She was arrested and handcuffed for drug possession as she lay dying, and her hospital room was raided and she was placed under police guard. On July 15, she received the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church and died two days later on July 17, 1959 from pulmonary edema and heart failure caused by cirrhosis of the liver. In her final years, she had been progressively swindled out of her earnings, and she died with $0.70 in the bank and $750 (a tabloid fee) on her person.

Her funeral Mass was on July 21, 1959 at Church of St. Paul the Apostle in Manhattan. She was buried at Saint Raymond's Cemetery in the Bronx. More than 3,000 people turned out to say good-bye to Lady Day at her funeral. A who's who of the jazz world attended the solemn occasion, including Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Tony Scott, Buddy Rogers, and John Hammond.

Billie Holiday was gone, but her legacy lives on to this very day.