Billie Holiday was a legendary American jazz singer, songwriter and actress. She was born as Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915 to Sarah Julia Fagan and Clarence Holiday. Her parents were neither married, nor living together and Clarence left the family when Billie was just a child. Her mother moved to Baltimore after being kicked out of her parents’ home for being pregnant. Billie went to live with her aunt and had a very difficult childhood. At the age of 9, Holiday was brought before the juvenile court for skipping school, and then sent to Catholic reform school where she was baptized. By the age of 11, she had dropped out of school. At the age of 11, she was raped by her neighbor who was discovered in the act by her mother. The neighbor was arrested and Holiday was placed at the House of the Good Shepherd under protective custody. During this time, she started listening to jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith.
Before the age of 14, Holiday had started working as a prostitute with her mother but the brothel where they worked was raided and both mother and daughter were sent to prison. She was released from prison in October 1929 after which she began her career as a singer. She made appearances at several clubs in Harlem such as Grey Dawn, Pod’s and Jerry’s and the Brooklyn Elks’ Club. Despite her lack of professional training, Billie soon became an active member of the local Harlem jazz scene. She raspy, honest voice became her signature style and attracted several producers including John Hammond, who appreciated her talent and helped her to meet Benny Goodman, with whom she collaborated on several tracks such as “Your Mother’s Son-In-Law” and “Riffin’ the Scotch”.
Holiday got her first record deal at the age of 18. Her first hits came in 1935 with records such as “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Miss Brown to You”. In 1936, she began working with a saxophonist Lester Young with whom she developed a deep friendship. She was nicknamed “Lady Day” by him and she later joined the Count Basie Orchestra of which Young was a part. She also joined Artie Shaw and his orchestra, which made her the first female African American singer to work with a white orchestra. However, she soon left due to objections from concert promoters about her race and singing style. She also had trouble playing at clubs and cabarets, because she lost her license for possession of narcotics, for which she was also jailed.
She then started her own solo career, singing at New York’s Cafe Society where she churned out hit after hit including “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit”. The latter was a powerfully worded and sung track, rejected by Columbia Records and later released by Commodore label. It spoke of the oppression of African Americans in the South and was banned by some radio stations, yet it turned out to be a huge success. In 1941, she married James Monroe but the relationship was a stormy one and did not last long. Around this time, she had another hit with “God Bless the Child”. A couple of years later, she signed with Decca Records and soon sang another hit “Lover Man”. She also appeared in movies such as the 1947 film New Orleans, in which she played a small part but got the satisfaction of working with her personal idol Louis Armstrong.
Throughout the 1950s, Holiday was busy with producing new materials, touring extensively and being in public attention. She produced further hits such as “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” and “My Man” many of which focused on her personal relationship problems. In 1956, she published her autobiography titled “Lady Sings the Blues” which was adapted into a successful movie starring Diana Ross in 1972 after Holiday’s death. Her road to success was juxtaposed with her struggles in her personal life. She was arrested for narcotics possession multiple times, and used marijuana, opium, cocaine and alcohol by herself and with each of her partners and spouses. Her drug use spiraled out of control after her mother’s death and with each abusive relationship she suffered through. She died on July 17, 1959 from alcohol and drug related diseases. More than 3000 people came to attend her funeral including jazz greats such as Benny Goodman, Buddy Rogers and John Hammond. In 2000, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.