When Lady Day sang the blues in Morristown

Jeffrey V. Moy, North Jersey History and Genealogy Center

Iconic blues singer, Billie Holiday, is best known for her performances in smoky New York City jazz clubs, but during one of the most difficult moments of her life she found safe haven in Morristown.

Here, she briefly lived with the family of pianist Bobby Tucker, whose parents, Robert and Beatrice Tucker, lived on Cleveland Avenue.

Holiday details her troubled upbringing and struggles with substance abuse in her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues.

The book includes her 1947 narcotics arrest that resulted in a one year sentence at the Federal Women’s Reformatory in Alderson, West Virginia.

Billie Holiday and her dog Mister, portrait taken by legendary jazz photographer William Gottlieb. Collections of the Library of Congress.

Upon gaining early release for good behavior, Billie was welcomed back to the Tucker homestead.

She writes of Bobby Tucker meeting her at Newark Penn Station with her dog, Mister, who was so excited to see his owner that he leaped up and knocked her to the ground, causing a concerned crowd of onlookers to come to her aid thinking she’d been attacked by a stray.

Upon arriving at the Tucker family home, Billie noted that “his mother came running out and took me in her arms. Bobby and his mother made me feel like I was home and everything was cool.”

Marj Kaschewski’s February 1, 1973 Daily Record article detailing Ms. Holiday’s visits to the Tucker family home in Morristown.

During Holiday’s two and half months in Morristown, she continuously rehearsed for the Carnegie Hall concert that her manager arranged as a comeback performance.

Bobby’s sister, Jane Tucker, noted that these rehearsals took place in her mother’s enclosed porch, where Billie Holiday was joined by clarinetist (and Morristown native) Tony Sciacca, drummer Denzel Best, bassist John Levy, guitarist Remo Palmeri, and Bobby Tucker on piano.


Jane remarked that “The neighbors were too considerate to come over and listen. They felt Lady wouldn’t enjoy being stared at then, but we knew every ear was glued to the windows.”


Holiday was unsure her fans would embrace her after her legal troubles. But her March 27, 1948, performance sold out, with fans purchasing over 2,500 advance tickets.

Billie invited Jane and Beatrice Tucker to the concert as guests, placing them in the venue’s best box seats, and the concert’s success springboarded Holiday’s revival.

Billie Holiday enters the stage during her 1948 performance at Carnegie Hall. William Gottlieb, photographer. Collections of the Library of Congress.

Although Ms. Holiday had expressed a desire to buy a house in Morristown, her career kept her in New York and on the road. She did, however, let her boxer, Mister, stay with the family where he loved the added space in which to run around.

Bobby Tucker left Holiday to play for Billy Eckstine, and his sister Jane became a senior research assistant for the Mennen Company.

While the Tuckers kept in touch with Holiday, she never did return to Morristown.

Sources:

  • “When Lady Sang those blues Morristown had heard it all,” The Daily Record, February 1, 1973. Page 32.
  • North Jersey History and Genealogy Center Vertical Files

MORE ARTICLES BY THE NORTH JERSEY HISTORY & GENEALOGY CENTER

For a behind the scenes look at our collections and additional information on New Jersey history, follow us on Twitter @NJHistoryCenter and on Tumblr at njhgc.tumblr.com.

[interactive_copyright_notice float='left']
[icopyright_horizontal_toolbar float='right']

2 COMMENTS

  1. The local history department in the basement of the Town-Township library is one of Morristown’s treasures, with helpful librarians, available to aid in finding so many interesting pieces of Morristown history for today’s generation to enjoy.

LEAVE A REPLY

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.