Billie Holiday

“The difficult I’ll do right now. The impossible will take a little while.”

Billie Holiday, American jazz singer, 1915-1959.

One of the greatest singers in the history of jazz, Billie Holiday, also known as “Lady Day,” is remembered for her renditions of countless jazz standards, such as “Blue Moon” and “I’m Gonna Lock My Heart,” as well as the racially-charged ballad “Strange Fruit,” a song she sang for 20 years until her untimely death at 44. Most of her 26-year career, which peaked in the 1930s,  predated the Billboard charts, but she did have more than a dozen top 10 hits, including “I’ve Got Your Love to Keep Me Warm” and “Carelessly,” which hit number one. She won four Grammy awards, all posthumously, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.

Born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia, her mother and father were just 13 and 16 when they had her. Her father is believed to have been the jazz musician Clarence Holiday. Growing up in Baltimore, Holiday says that she started working when she was six. She disliked school and was taken to court for truancy and put in a school for troubled African-American girls at age nine. Holiday’s mother moved to New York in the 1930s, and Holiday followed her there, working as a prostitute in Harlem. She began singing in night clubs, taking her stage name from the screen actress Billie Dove, whom she idolized. She even styled her hair the same way. 

Holiday was discovered at age 18 and connected with band leader Benny Goodman, producing the 1934 top 10 hit "Riffin' the Scotch." She soon began touring with the Count Basie orchestra. Out of frustration with promoters reluctant to book a black singer, Holiday struck out on her own, developing her trademark stage persona— wearing gardenias in her hair and singing with emotional intensity, her head tilted back. At New York’s Café Society she performed two of her best known songs, “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit”,  in a dramatic spot-lit performance that had her disappear when the lights came up.

In 1941 Holiday married James Monroe, an opium smoker, and picked up his habit. Although the marriage ended, her substance abuse did not. She was eventually framed by the racist head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics who arranged for her to be sold heroin. She was arrested and jailed for a year and never got her cabaret licence back. Holiday embarked on a successful European tour in the 1950s and gave her final performance in New York City on May 25, 1959. When she died from complications of her addictions, 3,000 people attended her funeral. The story of her remarkable life was made into the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues, based on her autobiography of the same name, where she was played by Diana Ross. 


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