Today is the birthday of American jazz legend Billie Holiday, born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia (1915).
Billie Holiday’s parents were barely teenagers when they had her, and unwed — her mother only 13 years to her father’s 15. Shortly after her birth, her father left to pursue his dreams of becoming a jazz guitarist. Her mother left young Eleanora in the care of her aunt so that she could work during the day.
By age 12, Billie was already a fan of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. She accepted a job running errands for a local madam because she let her play records on the madam’s Victrola gramophone. A few years later, Holiday became a prostitute herself, and was arrested along with her mother after a raid at the brothel.
Afterward, Billie began performing in Harlem nightclubs. She was discovered there by producer John Hammond, who would also launch the careers of Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Leonard Cohen, and Bruce Springsteen. She took the stage name Billie Holiday, after the popular Swiss actress Billie Dove and her own father, Clarence Holiday.
In the span of her nearly 30-year career, Holiday released 38 charting singles. She took on the nickname “Lady Day,” and her voice was singular. “If I’m going to sing like someone else,” she said, “then I don’t need to sing at all.”
In 1937, Holiday joined Count Basie’s band. Neither she nor most of the band members could read music — they played instead by memory and feel. In this time, she competed with, and then befriended, fellow jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald.
When she was fired from the Count Basie Band, she was immediately picked up by bandleader Artie Shaw for his all-white orchestra. The arrangement was highly unusual, the first time a black female singer toured the segregated South with a white composer. Shaw defended her as they toured, but it was too much for Holiday. When she was made to use the service elevator at one of their hotels because of guest complaints, she left the group for good.
She signed onto Columbia records for the ’30s and ’40s, but re-signed with Commodore and Decca Records after Columbia rejected her hit “Strange Fruit” on the grounds that it was too controversial. The song, adapted from a poem, had special meaning to her in relation to her father Clarence’s death — he was denied medical treatment for a lung disorder on the basis of race. “It reminds me of how Pop died,” she explained in her autobiography, “but I have to keep singing it, not only because people ask for it, but because twenty years after Pop died the things that killed him are still happening in the South.” She also starred in a film in 1946, but her screen time was severely cut because of pressure to avoid the implication that black people created jazz music.
Holiday suffered from many drug and legal troubles throughout her life. She was arrested for narcotics possession in 1947 and made to serve time in jail. After her release, she sold out a show at Carnegie Hall. Still, she could not make a clean break from heroin and the police forces trying to punish her for it. As she lay dying in her hospital bed from liver cirrhosis in 1959, she was handcuffed and arrested for drug possession.
Today, her voice and music remain unmatched. She was awarded four posthumous Grammys, and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.