Billie Holiday (April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959), born Eleanora Fagan and later called Lady Day, was an American singer known equally for her difficult life and her emotive, poignant singing voice. Holiday has long been considered one of the greatest jazz voices of all time.


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, Lady Sings the Blues, 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 slave and a white Irish plantation owner. Allegedly, her mother was only 13 at the time of Holiday's birth in Philadelphia and had moved there in order to hide her out-of-wedlock pregnancy; the 1900 census lists Holiday's mother's birth year as 1896. 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.) In the rare times she did see him, she would shake him down for money by threatening to tell his then-girlfriend that he had a daughter.

She grew up in the poor section of Baltimore, Maryland, near the projects. 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 11, she reported that she had 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.[1] Scarred by these experiences, Holiday moved to New York City with her mother in 1928. In 1929 Holiday's mother discovered a neighbor, Wilbert Rich, in the act of raping her daughter; Rich was sentenced to three months in jail.

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 hard to verify, though accounts say she was working at a club named Monette's in 1933 when she was discovered by talent scout John Hammond.[2]

Hammond arranged for Holiday to make her recording debut on a 1933 Benny Goodman date, and Goodman was also on hand in 1935, when she continued her recording career with a group led by pianist Teddy Wilson. Their first collaboration included "What A Little Moonlight Can Do" and "Miss Brown To You", which helped to establish Billie Holiday as a major vocalist. She began recording under her own name a year later, producing a series of extraordinary performances with groups comprising the Swing Era's finest musicians.

Among the musicians who accompanied her frequently was tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who had been a boarder at her mother's house in 1934 and with whom she had a special rapport. "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." [3] Young nicknamed her "Lady Day" and she, in turn, dubbed him "Prez". In the late 1930s, she also had brief stints as a big band vocalist with Count Basie (1937) and Artie Shaw (1938). The latter association placed her among the first black women to work with a white orchestra, an arrangement that went against the temper of the times. Billie's Blues, a biography by British jazz historian John Chilton, details this period of her life.

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 because of its subject matter. She arranged to record it with a different label, Commodore, Milt Gabler's alternative jazz label in 1939. She recorded two major sessions at Commodore, one in 1939 and one in 1944. Although there were far fewer songs recorded with Commodore, some of her biggest hits were under this label, including "Fine And Mellow", "I Cover The Waterfront" and "Embraceable You". "Strange Fruit" was highly regarded and admired by intellectuals, and is in 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.

Decca Records and "Lover Man"

In addition to owning Commodore Records, Milt Gabler was an A&R man for Decca Records, and he signed Holiday to the label in 1944. Her first recording for Decca, "Lover Man," was a song that had been written especially for her by Jimmy Davis, Roger "Ram" Ramirez, and Jimmy Sherman. Although the song's lyrics describe a woman who has never known love ("I long to try something I never had"), its theme — a woman longing for a missing lover — and its refrain, "Lover man, oh, where can you be?", struck a chord in war-time America and the record became one of Holiday's biggest hits.

Holiday continued to record for Decca until 1950, including one session in which she and Louis Armstrong sang several duets. Holiday's Decca recordings offer a sharp contrast to those of her Columbia period. The songs she was able to record at Decca generally were top-quality, and many of her songs were accompanied by orchestras or string sections rather than jazz combos. Some of the songs Holiday recorded for Decca became her signatures ("Don't Explain," "Good Morning Heartache").

Later life

Her personal life was as turbulent as the songs she sang. Holiday stated that she began using hard drugs in the early 1940s. She married trombonist Jimmy Monroe on August 25, 1941. While still married to Monroe, she took up with trumpeter Joe Guy, her drug dealer, as his common law wife. 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, except when she played at the Ebony Club in 1948, where she opened under the permission of John Levy.

By the 1950s, Holiday's drug abuse, drinking, and relations with abusive men led to deteriorating health. 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 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 just over 100 new recordings for this label, which constituted about a third of her recorded work. Her voice reveals a rugged timbre on these tracks, reflecting a vulnerability in the once grand and bold diva. On November 10, 1956, she performed before a packed audience at Carnegie Hall, a major accomplishment for any artist, especially a black artist of the segregated period of American history. 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. (see the clip here)

Holiday toured Europe in 1954 and again from late 1958 to early 1959. While in London in February 1959, she made a memorable televised appearance on Granada Television'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 Theater 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 disease. 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 continues to influence singers. In 1972, Diana Ross portrayed her in a film that was loosely based on Lady Sings the Blues, the autobiography she co-authored with William Dufty. Although the Hollywood treatment strayed far from the true story, it was a commercial success and earned Ms. Ross an Best Actress nomination. In 1987, Billie Holiday was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, in 1994, the United States Postal Service introduced a Billie Holiday postage stamp, and she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. Over the years, there have been many recorded tributes to Billie Holiday, including "Angel of Harlem", a 1988 release by the group U2.

Although her unique style has never been successfully duplicated, Billie Holiday inspired many singers and continues to be regarded as one of the jazz idiom's most important vocalists.

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


File:Billie Holiday 1949 b.jpg

Billie Holiday photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1949

Her distinct delivery made Billie Holiday's performances instantly recognizable throughout her career. Years of abuse eventually altered the texture of her voice and gave it a prepossessing fragility, but the emotion with which she imbued each song remained intact. Her last major recordings, a 1958 album entitled Lady in Satin, features the backing of 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.

Music samples

Template:Multi-listen start Template:Multi-listen item Template:Multi-listen end More music by Billie Holiday:

  • Sophisticated Lady (Duke Ellington)[1]
  • Miss Brown to you [2]
  • Summertime (George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin) [3]
  • Strange Fruit [4]
  • I'm Pulling Through [5]
  • If I were you [6]
  • You go to my head [7]
  • Body and Soul [8]
  • The Man I Love (George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin)[9]
  • Billies Blues [10]


Holiday made extensive recordings for four labels:

  • Columbia Records (1933-1942, 1958)
  • Commodore Records (1939, 1944)
  • Decca Records (1944-1950)
  • Verve Records (1952-1959)

Studio recordings

Note: To avoid repetition (and a very long discography) most of Holiday's individual albums are omitted, as almost all the material from these albums is available on the box sets listed below.

Box sets:

  • Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia (1933-1944)
  • The Complete Commodore Recordings (1939, 1944)
  • The Complete Decca Recordings (1944-1950)
  • The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve (1945-1959)

Other studio recordings:

  • Lady in Satin (Columbia, 1958)
  • New Orleans: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1946) (Giants of Jazz, 1983)
  • The Sound of Jazz (Columbia, 1958)

Live recordings

Many live recordings, of varying quality, are also available. A selection are listed below:

  • At Monterey 1958 (1958)
  • Billie Holiday in Europe 1954-1958 (1954-1958)
  • The Complete 1951 Storyville Club Sessions (1951)
  • Lady Day: The Storyville Concerts [Vol. 1 and 2] (1951, 1953, 1959)
  • A Midsummer Night's Jazz at Stratford '57 (1957)
  • Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday at Newport (1958)
  • Summer of '49 (1948-1949)

The Columbia box set includes live recordings of Holiday's performances with the Count Basie Orchestra (1937) and Benny Goodman (1939), and her performance at the 1944 Esquire Jazz Concert.

The Verve box set includes the following live recordings:

  • Jazz at the Philharmonic performances (1945-1947)
  • Jazz Club USA (1954)
  • 1956 Carnegie Hall concerts, with a narrator reading portions of her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues
  • 1957 Newport Jazz Festival
  • Seven Ages of Jazz Festival (1958)



External links

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Template:Great American Songbook

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  1. Billie Holiday biography at
  2. "Billie Holiday." Black History Month Biographies. 2004. Gale Group Databases. 1 Mar, 2004
  3. 1958 interview with Chris Albertson