At an unforgiving time in an unforgiving country, Billie Holiday broke through as one of the most accomplished and memorable vocalists the jazz scene has ever seen. Her passion and capacity to convey emotion through her peculiar voice is unparalleled, and what she accomplished throughout her troubled life stands next to other incredible African American figures such as Josephine Baker and the leading artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Here’s the story of the jazz singer who conquered America.
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A difficult childhood
Born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915, in Philadelphia, Billie Holiday did not have an easy childhood. Sadie, her mother, was only a teenager when she had Holiday, and both of them spent most of her childhood on their own. Holiday’s father was pretty much absent throughout her life.
When she was around 9 years old, Holiday was sent to a house for troubled black girls, the House of Good Shepherd, where she reportedly was the victim of sexual assault. She left the place and went back to her mother a year later.
All these troubles made her seek a safe haven. And she found one in music. She was particularly fond of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, and developed a deep connection with singing at the time. If you’ve ever sung your favorite song in the shower, you can probably tell: singing is cathartic. It is uplifting. And Holiday developed her voice.
By the late 1920s, she moved to Harlem, New York, with her mother. There she began singing in nightclubs, for which she chose an artistic name. “Billie,” after the film star Billie Dove.
A rising star
When she was 18, Billie finally got her chance. It was producer John Hammond who discovered her, when she was performing at a local jazz club. Hammond helped her from then on, and got her to work with a clarinetist and bandleader called Benny Goodman. She sang; he played. And the two made a good team.
Holiday and Goodman recorded several hits, including “Riffin’ the Scotch” and “Your Mother’s Son-In-Law.” By 1935, she had met pianist Teddy Wilson, with whom she also collaborated. Her voice was starting to become known, perhaps not for its range, but for its authenticity and a touch of melancholy that could really drive the emotion home.
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In 1937, Holiday joined Count Basie Orchestra, one of the most prominent jazz groups of the swing era. Saxophonist Lester Young played with them occasionally, and developed a close friendship with Holiday, giving her the nickname “Lady Day” that same year. She called him “Prez.”
Holiday toured with the group throughout 1937, and soon after she started working with Artie Shaw and his own band. This was a breakthrough both for Holiday and for African American singers in the U.S., as she was the first black woman vocalist to work in a white orchestra. But America couldn’t be that simple, of course. White promoters didn’t take kindly to a black singer participating with white people like that, and a frustrated Holiday ended up leaving the band. The seed of racism runs deep in this country.
Billie picked up drinking as an unfortunate way to cope with her personal life. Her romantic relationships were often marred by abuses and a self-destructive nature, and many of her most famous came from that fact. By this time she had started a promising solo career, as she regularly performed at New York’s Café Society and signed with Columbia Records. She released incredible songs such as “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit,” the latter of which touched upon horrible social issues for African American people, narrating a story about lynching in the south.
“Strange Fruit” became widely controversial, as many radio stations banned it—which in itself, ironically, helped make it a hit.
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The troubled singer
But, despite her success at this time, Holiday was already following a self-destructive path from which few manage to return. In 1941, she married playboy James Monroe, a violent and unstable man. Though Holiday was already a heavy drinker, Monroe gave her a new habit. As an opium user, he introduced Billie to a whole new world of substance abuse, and she never stopped—even after she divorced Monroe a little while later.
A few years later she started dating trumpeter Joe Guy, with whom she started using heroin. Holiday’s mother died in 1945, and that made her pick up the pace when it came to substance abuse. She drank more heavily than ever before, and used more drugs in greater quantities in order to drown her sorrow.
But her drug use didn’t stop her from conquering the jazz world up until then. Not yet, anyway. In 1947, she even took a dive into the film industry by playing a small role alongside Louis Armstrong (her childhood idol) in the movie New Orleans.
She couldn’t keep it up forever, though. She was arrested shortly after and convicted for the possession of narcotics. Holiday was sentenced to 366 days in prison and sent to a rehabilitation facility in West Virginia. Even behind bars, her popularity kept rising. But she didn’t have it easy at all from then on—not that she actually had it easy before, either. Being an ex-con, she couldn’t secure a license to perform in night clubs. Still, she was the Billie Holiday by then, with the incredible power to sell out concert halls—which she did at the Carnegie Hall shortly after she got out of prison.
From then on, Holiday’s voice would get increasingly worse after years of substance abuse. But she still managed a great deal of success and impressive performances before the end. She toured through Europe, co-wrote an autobiography called Lady Sings the Blues (1956), got married in Mexico, was arrested again, performed on the CBS television broadcast “The Sound of Jazz,” and recorded a final album, Lady in Satin, in 1958.
On May 25, 1959, Holiday gave her final performance in New York City. Soon after, she was admitted to the hospital with liver problems, where she was arrested once more for possession. She died on July 17, 1959.
That was a troubled end to a troubled life, but Billie Holiday left huge waves behind her, and strongly cemented her footprint on the world. More than 3,000 people showed up at her funeral, and the jazz world will never forget her emotional voice and thrilling personality. She is remembered as one of the best jazz vocalists of all time.
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