Billie Holiday

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Performers and composers

Billie Holiday ( April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959), also called Lady Day (and named at birth Elinore Harris, - not Eleanora Fagan Gough), was an American singer, generally considered one of the greatest female jazz voices of all time, alongside Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald.

Early life

Holiday had a difficult childhood which greatly affected her life and career. Much of her childhood is clouded by conjecture and legend, some of it propagated by her autobiography, published in 1956. This account is known to contain many inaccuracies. Her professional pseudonym was taken from Billie Dove, an actress she admired, and Clarence Holiday, her probable father. At the outset of her career, she spelled her last name "Halliday," presumably to distance herself from her neglectful father, but eventually changed it back to "Holiday."

Holiday's grandfather was one of 17 children of a black Virginia female slave and a white Irish plantation owner. Allegedly, her mother Sadie was only 13 at the time of Billie's birth in Philadelphia and had moved there in order to hide her out-of-wedlock preganancy, although the 1900 census lists Sadie's birth year as 1896, which would make her 19 when Billie was born. Clarence Holiday, 16 years old at the time, was a banjo player who would later play for Fletcher Henderson. (There is some controversy regarding Holiday's paternity, stemming from a copy of her birth certificate in the Baltimore archives that lists the father as a "Frank DeViese." Some historians consider this an anomaly, probably inserted by a hospital or government worker — see Donald Clarke, Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon, ISBN 0-306-81136-7.) Clarence Holiday accepted paternity, but was hardly a responsible father. In the rare times she did see him, Billie would shake him down for money by threatening to tell his then-girlfriend that he had a daughter.

Billie grew up in the Fells Point section of Baltimore, Maryland. According to her autobiography, her house was the first on their street to have electricity. Her parents married when she was three, but they soon divorced, leaving her to be raised largely by her mother and other relatives. At the age of 10, she reported having been raped. That claim, combined with her frequent truancy, resulted in her being sent to The House of the Good Shepherd, a Catholic reform school, in 1925. It was only through the assistance of a family friend that she was released two years later . Scarred by these experiences, Holiday moved to New York with her mother in 1928. In 1929, Sadie discovered a neighbour, Wilbert Rich, in the act of raping Billie; Rich was sentenced to 3 months in jail. Sadie later remarried and abandoned Billie, who from then on was raised by a woman she called Grandma, Martha Miller. Sadie died on October 6, 1945.

Early singing career

According to Billie Holiday's accounts, she was recruited by a brothel, worked as a prostitute, and was eventually imprisoned for a short time. It was in Harlem in the early 1930s that she started singing for tips in various night clubs. According to legend, penniless and facing eviction, she sang " Body and Soul" in a local club and reduced the audience to tears. She later worked at various clubs for tips, ultimately landing at Pod's and Jerry's, a well known Harlem jazz club. Her early work history is sketchy, though accounts say she was working at a club named Monette's in 1933 when she was discovered by talent scout John Hammond (see "Billie Holiday." Black History Month Biographies. 2004. Gale Group Databases. 1 Mar, 2004).

Hammond managed to get Holiday recording sessions with Benny Goodman and booked her for live performances in various New York clubs. In 1935 her career got a big push when she recorded four sides that became hits, including "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" and "Miss Brown To You". This landed her a recording contract of her own, and from 1935 to 1942 she laid down masters that would ultimately become an important segment of early American jazz. Sometimes referred to as her " Columbia period" (after her label), these recordings represent a large portion of her total body of work.

During this period, the American music industry was still moderately segregated, and many of the songs Holiday was given to record were intended for the black jukebox audience. She was often not considered for the 'best' songs of the day, which were reserved for white singers. However, Holiday's style and fresh sound soon caught the attention of musicians across the nation, and her popularity began to climb. Peggy Lee, who began recording with Benny Goodman in the early 1940s, is often said to have emulated Holiday's light, sensual style.

In 1936 she was working with Lester Young, who gave her the now-famous nickname of Lady Day. Holiday joined Count Basie in 1937 and Artie Shaw in 1938. She was one of the first black women to work with a white orchestra, an impressive accomplishment at the time.

The Commodore Years and "Strange Fruit"

Holiday was working for Columbia in the late 1930s when she was introduced to a song entitled " Strange Fruit," which began as a poem about the lynching of a black man written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx. Meeropol used the pseudonym "Lewis Allen" for the work. The poem was set to music and performed at teachers' union meetings, where it was eventually heard by the manager of Cafe Society, an integrated nightclub in Greenwich Village, who introduced it to Holiday. Holiday performed the song at Cafe Society in 1939, a move that by her own admission left her fearful of 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 persistence to perform it.

She approached Columbia about recording the song, but was refused due to the subject matter of the song. She arranged to record it with an alternate label, Commodore, Milt Gabler's alternative jazz label in 1939. She would record two major sessions at Commodore, one in 1939 and one in 1944. Although there were far fegun aCover the Waterfront" and "Embraceable You". "Strange Fruit" was highly regarded and admired by intellectuals, and is in a large part responsible for her widespread popularity. " Strange Fruit's" popularity also prompted Holiday to record the type of songs that would become her signature, namely slow, moving love ballads.

It is widely conjectured that this is the period where Holiday first began what would become a long, and ultimately fatal, history of substance abuse. Holiday stated that she began using hard drugs in the early 1940s.

Her personal life was as turbulent as the songs she sang. She married trombonist Jimmy Monroe on August 25, 1941. While still married to Monroe, she took up with trumpeter Joe Guy as his common law wife and her drug dealer. She finally divorced Monroe in 1947, and also split with Guy. In 1947 she was jailed on drug charges and served eight months at the Alderson Federal Correctional Institution for Women in West Virginia. Her New York City Cabaret Card was subsequently revoked, which kept her from working in clubs there for the remaining 12 years of her life.

Later life and the Verve sessions

By the 1950s Holiday's drug abuse, drinking, relations with abusive men, and deteriorating health set her life on a slow and steady decline. Her voice coarsened and did not project the vibrance it once did. However, she seemed to stand as a prime example of the struggling artist, and projected a certain bittersweet dignity.

On March 28, 1952, Holiday married Louis McKay, a Mafia "enforcer." McKay, like most of the men in her life, was abusive, but did try to get her off drugs. They were separated at the time of her death. Holiday was also rather openly bisexual and was rumored to have had several affairs with notable stage and film actresses, including Tallulah Bankhead. Holiday also had a relationship with Orson Welles.

Her late recordings on Verve are as well remembered as her Commodore and Decca work. From 1952 to 1959 Holiday released a little more than 100 new recordings for this label, which would constitute about a third of her recorded work. Her voice reflects a rugged timbre on these tracks, reflecting a vulnerability to the once grand and bold diva. Her performance of "Fine and Mellow" on CBS's The Sound of Jazz program is memorable for her interplay with her long-time friend Lester Young; both were less than two years from death.

Holiday toured Europe in 1954 and again from late 1958 to early 1959. While in London in February 1959, Holiday made a memorable televised appearance on the BBC's Chelsea at Nine, singing, among other songs, "Strange Fruit." Holiday made her final studio recordings (with Ray Ellis and his Orchestra, who had also recorded her Lady in Satin album the previous year — see below) for the MGM label in March 1959 (included in her complete Verve recordings collection.) These final studio recordings were released posthumously on a self-titled album, later re-titled and re-released as Last Recordings. She made her final public appearance at a benefit concert at the Phoenix Theatre in Greenwich Village, New York City on May 25, 1959. According to the masters of ceremony at that performance, Leonard Feather (a renowned jazz critic) and Steve Allen, she was only able to make it through two songs, one of which was "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do."

On May 31, 1959, she was taken to Metropolitan Hospital in New York, suffering from liver and heart problems. On July 12, she was placed under house arrest at the hospital for possession, despite evidence suggesting the drugs may have been planted on her. Holiday remained under police guard at the hospital until she died from cirrhosis of the liver on July 17, 1959 at the age of 44. In the final years of her life, she had been progressively swindled out of her earnings, and she died with only $0.70 in the bank and $750 on her person.

Her impact on other artists was undeniable, however; even after her death she influenced such singers as Janis Joplin and Nina Simone. In 1972, Diana Ross played her in a movie version of Holiday's autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues. To everyone's surprise, the film was a commercial smash and earned a Best Actress nomination for Ross. In 1988 U2 released " Angel of Harlem", a tribute to her.

Like many artists, the importance of Holiday's music and her influence were only truly realized after her death. She struggled against racism and sexism her entire career, and achieved fame despite a turbulent life. She is also often cited as an example to the black and gay communities, both which admire her early efforts to stand up for equal rights, and to speak out against discrimination and racism. She is now considered one of the most important vocalists of the 20th century.

Billie Holiday is interred in Saint Raymond's Cemetery, Bronx, New York.


Billie Holiday photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1949
Billie Holiday photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1949

While instantly recognizable, Holiday's voice changed over time. Her first recordings in the mid-1930s featured a bouncy, girlish voice. By the early 1940s her singing became informed by her acting skill. It was during this time when she recorded her signature songs "Strange Fruit" and "I Cover the Waterfront." Many called her voice lovingly sweet, weathered and experienced, sad and sophisticated. As she aged, the effects of her drug abuse continued to ravage her range and her voice changed considerably, becoming somewhat rougher. Her last major recording, Lady in Satin, was released in 1958 and reveals a woman with an extremely limited range, but wonderful phrasing and emotion. The recording featured a backing from a 40-piece orchestra conducted and arranged by Ray Ellis, who said of the album in 1997:

I would say that the most emotional moment was her listening to the playback of "I'm a Fool to Want You." There were tears in her eyes...After we finished the album I went into the control room and listened to all the takes. I must admit I was unhappy with her performance, but I was just listening musically instead of emotionally. It wasn't until I heard the final mix a few weeks later that I realized how great her performance really was.


  • Billie was 5'5"
  • The Black Eyed Peas paid her a tribute in a Coca Cola commercial
  • America's Next Top Model contestant Mercedes Yvette posed as Billie Holiday during a photoshoot in which the models had to portray a famous figure. The judges said that the photograph captured Billie's sweet sadness.
  • Holiday spent much of the 1930s working with famous jazz saxophonist Lester Young. It was Young who gave Holiday the nickname Lady Day, and Holiday gave Young the nickname "Prez". The two were reunited at a performance on the CBS television special The Sound of Jazz on December 8, 1957. They were both on tour in Europe in March of 1959 when Young fell ill and had to return to New York. Young died on March 15, 1959 at the age of 49. According to renowned jazz critic Leonard Feather, who rode with Holiday in a taxi to Young's funeral, she told Feather on the ride over, "I'll be the next one to go". Holiday died almost exactly four months later.
  • On September 18, 1994, the United States Postal Service honored Holiday by introducing a USPS-sponsored stamp.
  • Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 (under the category 'early influence')
  • A statue of Holiday stands at the corner of Lafayette and Pennsylvania Avenues in Baltimore.
  • While in the hospital, Billie hid her drugs in a Kleenex box; a nurse discovered it and she was arrested on her deathbed.
  • In April 2005, in honour of the 90th anniversary of Billie's birth, Columbia University's radio station, WKCR-FM (, broadcast a two-week marathon festival of Billie's music, pre-empting all regular programming.
  • Cousin of boxer Henry Armstrong
  • The U2 song Angel of Harlem paid tribute to Holiday.
  • The Regina Spektor song Lady is about Billie.
  • Billie is later talked about in The Simpsons episode: "'Round Springfield" where the dead jazz musicer Bleeding Gums Murphy claims to have a date with her.
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