Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan; April 7th 1915 - died July 17th 1959)
Billie Holiday was an influential American jazz singer.
Billie Holiday: Childhood
Billie Holiday was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her parents were Sadie Fagan, a railroad worker, and musician Clarence Holiday and were together only briefly before Clarence left them.
Billie stayed with her mother's half sister Eva Miller during her most of her childhood and struggled to cope with her mother's frequent absences.
As a result, she often truanted and was forced to face the juvenile court as a young child. She went to The House of the Good Shepherd where she was baptised and looked after for nine months before being reunited with her mother and working alongside her at her East Side Grill restaurant. By 11, Billie had left school behind.
Around the same age, she was raped by her neighbour and subsequently placed in the custody of the House of the Good Shepherd. She then took up a job at a brothel doing errands while still with her mother, before her mother once again left her in the care of Eva Miller and her mother-in-law Martha Miller.
In her early teens, she became a prostitute alongside her mother in Harlem but both of them were soon briefly sent to prison.
Billie Holiday: Musical career
Billie Holiday began her singing career singing in clubs in New York, adopting her pseudonym from her father's last name and the actress Billie Dove. She originally performed as a duo with her sax player neighbour Kenneth Hollan.
After replacing Monette Moore at one club, she met producer John Hammond who had her record her first two songs - 'Your Mother's Son-In-Law' and 'Riffin' the Scotch' - with Benny Goodman in 1933. In 1935, she appeared in Duke Ellington's short film 'Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life' where she sang 'Saddest Tale'.
From 1935 to 1938, Holiday collaborated with Teddy Wilson on various songs including 'What a Little Moonlight Can Do', 'Miss Brown to You' and 'Twenty-Four Hours a Day'.
In 1937, she briefly sang for the band Count Basie, singing 'I Must Have That Man', 'I Can't Get Started', and 'Summertime'. During this time she was musical rivals with Ella Fitzgerald.
She later left the band for reasons unclear before being hired by Artie Shaw in his predominantly white orchestra. The music eventually hit the radio, though she soon left this band also because of unrelenting racial abuse from her audience.
Following all her work with various bands, she became a jazz staple and her 1938 single 'I'm Gonna Lock My Heart' became a major hit.
In 1939, she recorded the controversial song 'Strange Fruit' for Commodore Records - a track written about racial lynching. She later said that the track reminded her of how her father was denied life-saving medical treatment because of his colour. During this time, Holiday used to babysit actor Billy Crystal.
During some financial struggles in the 30s which her mother refused to help her out with, she wrote a song called 'God Bless the Child' in reference to their argument. The track sold over a million records and became her most popular song.
Holiday signed to Decca Records in 1944 after which she recorded 'Lover Man' which brought her more success.
She appeared in the movie 'New Orleans' in 1946 alongside Louis Armstrong and Woody Herman. Due to the racial tension in the country, she was forced to play a maid in the movie rather than herself as a jazz singer as she had hoped. For the soundtrack, she recorded the song 'The Blues Are Brewin''.
After serving a prison sentence on a drugs charge in 1948, Holiday played a comeback gig at Carnegie Hall during which time she accidentally stuck a hat pin from a bunch of flowers in her head which caused her to bleed and pass out.
In 1947, she had her New York City Cabaret Card revoked which meant that she could no longer perform anywhere that served alcoholic beverages. This reduced her earnings though she unlawfully managed to play a gig at the Ebony Club in 1948.
In 1956, her autobiography 'Lady Sings the Blues' was written with ghostwriter William Dufty. She later released an accompanying album featuring several of her biggest hits.
Billie Holiday: Personal life
Billie Holiday married Jimmy Monroe in 1941 during which time she also had a relationship with her drug dealer Joe Guy. She and Monroe divorced in 1947 but she remarried to Louis McKay - who was involved in the Mafia - in 1957. Most of Holiday's relationships were physically abusive.
Holiday suffered from drug and alcohol addiction throughout her career and was arrested for possession of drugs in 1947 after which she was sentenced to Alderson Federal Prison Camp before being released early on good behaviour.
She was arrested for a second time in 1949 on similar charges.
In 1959, she was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver caused by excessive alcohol consumption. She was arrested on her deathbed and died from her disease in May that year.