.       Orchestra leader Ray Ellis poses with Holiday in 1958. Holiday made her final studio recording with Ellis’ orchestra           the following year.
Billie Holiday  is generally regarded by knowledgeable jazz enthusiasts to be the greatest female singer in jazz, although a novice listener may at first find this hard to understand.  Holiday had a small voice, did not belt out songs the way the blues queens before her had, lacked the musicality of Ella Fitzgerald, and, unlike Ella, never scatted in her singing.  Recordings from late in her career reveal a thin, almost toneless voice with a deceptively conversational style.  Yet, her innovative way with behind-the-beat phrasing was ahead of its time – and in step with the laconic tenor sax of Lester Young.  And it was Young – known within jazz circles as “The Prez” – who gave her the name, “Lady Day,” which Billie held onto throughout her career. 
"I have to change a tune to my own way of doing it. That's all I know."
– Billie Holiday   

Billie Holiday’s origins are shrouded in the mists of legend, no little assisted by her ghosted autobiography, Lady Sings The Blues.  She was born Eleanora – but the rest of her original name is in dispute.  Some say she was Eleanora Fagan Gough.  Others say Eleanora Holiday, and yet others Eleanora Fagan.  Even her birthplace is in doubt.  Most biographers give it as Baltimore, but one claims it was Philadelphia.   And some sources state that she was born April 7, 1915, others give the date as April 17, 1915, and at least one suggests she might have been born as early as 1912. 

But many accept that our iconic jazz vocalist Billie Holiday was born April 7, 1915, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Considered one of the best jazz vocalists of all time, Holiday had a thriving career as a jazz singer for many years before she lost her battle with substance abuse. Her autobiography was made into the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues. In 2000, Billie Holiday was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.


                                                 Little Billie Holiday in 1917
The Billie Holiday Estate states that “Billie Holiday’s grandfather was one of 17 children of a black Virginia slave and a white Irish plantation owner.  Her mother was 13 when she was born.”  Her mother was Sadie Fagan, her father Clarence Holiday.  Clarence later played banjo and guitar with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, but he abandoned his daughter, never marrying her mother. The name “Billie” was borrowed from the silent screen star, Billie Dove – but accounts vary over whether this was Holiday’s choice or her mother’s. 
          Billie Holiday and Her Mother

The child of a child, Holiday had an abusive childhood, was raped at 10, and subsequently worked in brothels as both a domestic and as a prostitute. "Holiday started skipping school, and she and her mother went to court over Holiday's truancy. She was then sent to the House of Good Shepherd, a facility for troubled African American girls, in January 1925. Only 9 years old at the time, Holiday was one of the youngest girls there. She was returned to her mother's care in August of that year. According to Donald Clarke's biography, Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon, she returned there in 1926 after she had been sexually assaulted.

In her difficult early life, Holiday found solace in music, singing along to the records of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. She followed her mother who had moved to New York City in the late 1920s and worked in a house of prostitution in Harlem for a time. Around 1930, Holiday began singing in local clubs and renamed herself "Billie."


Her singing career began in late 1932 at the age of 17, in a small New York City club called Covan’s, in Harlem on West 132nd St, accompanied by a pianist namedat the age of 18 Dot Hill, Holiday was discovered by producer John Hammond. John Hammond – the man who “discovered” Benny Goodman and also built Columbia Records into a formidable force in jazz, late in his career gave Bob Dylan a boost at that label as well – showed up at Covan’s expecting to see the usual singer, Monette Moore.  He was struck by what he heard from Holiday instead, later saying, “The way she sang around a melody, her uncanny harmonic sense and her sense of lyric content were almost unbelievable in a girl of 17.” Hammond arranged for Holiday’s first recording sessions with Columbia.  A demo was made with Dot Hill, but it disappeared without a trace, no one even remembering what tune she sang. On November 27, 1933, Hammond was instrumental in getting Holiday recording work with an up-and-coming clarinetist and bandleader Benny Goodman.   With Goodman, she sang vocals for several tracks, including her first commercial release "Your Mother's Son-In-Law" and the 1934 top ten hit "Riffin' the Scotch."

Known for her distinctive phrasing and expressive, sometimes melancholy voice, Holiday went on to record with jazz pianist Teddy Wilson and others in 1935. She made several singles, including "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" and "Miss Brown to You." That same year, Holiday appeared with Duke Ellington in the film Symphony in Black.
    Jazz composer Duke Ellington sits with Billie Holiday and pianist and music critic Leonard Feather in this 1945 photo. Holiday starred in a short film with Ellington in 1935 and toured Europe with Feather in 1954.


Around this time, Holiday met and befriended saxophonist Lester Young, who was part of Count Basie's orchestra on and off for years. He even lived with Holiday and her mother Sadie for a while. Young gave Holiday the nickname "Lady Day" in 1937—the same year she joined Basie's band. In return, she called him "Prez," which was her way of saying that she thought it was the greatest.

Holiday toured with the Count Basie Orchestra in 1937. The following year, she worked with Artie Shaw and his orchestra. Holiday broke new ground with Shaw, becoming one of the first female African American vocalists to work with a white orchestra. Promoters objected to Holiday—for her race and for her unique vocal style. "Many of the venues where they played would not allow Holiday – or any black person – in the front door, nor would many of the hotels where the band stayed accept her" — this caused her great indignity and pain, despite the support of Shaw and his band. She ended up leaving the orchestra out of frustration.


Striking out on her own, Holiday performed at New York's Café Society. She developed some of her trademark stage persona there—wearing gardenias in her hair and singing with her head tilted back.

During this engagement, Holiday also debuted two of her most famous songs "God Bless the Child" and "Strange Fruit." Columbia, her record company at the time, was not interested in "Strange Fruit" (1939), which was a powerful story about the lynching of African Americans in the South. Holiday recorded the song with the Commodore label instead. This ballad is considered to be one of her signature ballads, and the controversy that surrounded it—some radio stations banned the record—helped make it a hit.

Over the years, Holiday sang many songs of stormy relationships, including "T'ain't Nobody's Business If I Do" and "My Man." These songs reflected her personal romances, which were often destructive and abusive. She married James Monroe in 1941. Already known to drink, Holiday picked up her new husband's habit of smoking opium. The marriage didn't last, but Holiday's problems with substance abuse continued. (They later divorce) 
                                 Carl Van Vechten, a photographer and writer who took a particular 
                                 interest in African Amercan artists of the era, photographed Holiday in 1949.  
                           Billie Holiday had plenty of love affairs, but was only married twice - to trombonist Jimmy Monroe, and then to small time gangster and manager Louis McKay.                        


That same year, Holiday had a hit with "God Bless the Child." She later signed with Decca Records in 1944 and scored an R&B hit the next year with "Lover Man." Her boyfriend at the time was trumpeter Joe Guy, and with him she started using heroin. After the death of her mother in October 1945, Holiday began drinking more heavily and escalated her drug use to ease her grief.
                  Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong aka Satchimo
        Jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong performed with Holiday in the 1947 film 'New Orleans'
Despite her personal problems, Holiday remained a major star in the jazz world—and even in popular music as well. She appeared with her idol Louis Armstrong in the 1947 film New Orleans, albeit playing the role of a maid.
     Billie Holiday leaves a police station in Philadelphia with her dog after being arrested on drug charges in 1956.
 Unfortunately, Holiday's drug use caused her a great professional setback that same year. She was arrested and convicted for narcotics possession in 1947. Sentenced to one year and a day of jail time, Holiday went to a federal rehabilitation facility in Alderston, West Virginia.
                           Billie Holiday and Ella Fritzgerald
Released the following year, Holiday faced new challenges. Because of her conviction, she was unable to get the necessary license to play in cabarets and clubs. Holiday, however, could still perform at concert halls and had a sold-out show at the Carnegie Hall not long after her release. With some help from John Levy, a New York club owner, Holiday was later to get to play in New York's Club Ebony. Levy became her boyfriend and manager by the end of the 1940s, joining the ranks of the men who took advantage of Holiday. Also around this time, she was again arrested for narcotics, but she was acquitted of the charges.
    Billie Holiday (the greatest jazz vocalist of all time) in Olympia, November 1958 just before she died in July 17, 1959 at the age of 44.

While her hard living was taking a toll on her voice, Holiday continued to tour and record in the 1950s. She began recording for Norman Granz, the owner of several small jazz labels, in 1952. Two years later, Holiday had a hugely successful tour of Europe.
      Billie Holiday drops in for Ella Fitzgerald's performance in 1947 at Bop City nightclub in New York and has a drink with the jazz vocalist and her husband, bassist Ray Brown.
Holiday also caught the public's attention by sharing her life story with the world in 1956. Her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues (1956), was written in collaboration by William Dufty. Some of the material included, however, must be taken with a grain of salt. Holiday was in rough shape when she worked with Dufty on the project, and she claimed to have never read the book after it was finished.
Around this time, Holiday became involved with Louis McKay. The two were arrested for narcotics in 1956, and they married in Mexico the following year. Like many other men in her life, McKay used Holiday's name and money to advance himself. Despite all of the trouble she had been experiencing with her voice, she managed to give an impressive performance on the CBS television broadcast The Sound of Jazz with Ben Webster, Lester Young, and Coleman Hawkins.

After years of lackluster recordings and record sales, Holiday recorded Lady in Satin (1958) with the Ray Ellis Orchestra for Columbia. The album's songs showcased her rougher sounding voice, which still could convey great emotional intensity. She gave her final performance in New York City on May 25, 1959. Not long after this event, Holiday was admitted to the hospital for heart and liver problems. She was so addicted to heroin that she was even arrested for possession while in the hospital. On July 17, 1959, Holiday died from alcohol- and drug-related complications.

    More than a thousand mourners turned out for Billie Holiday’s funeral on July 18th in 1959 at St. Paul’s the Apostle Roman Catholic Church in New York City.  Among the pallbearers were jazz greats Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson and Tony Scott
 More than 3,000 people turned out to say good-bye to Lady Day at her funeral held in St. Paul the Apostle Roman Catholic Church on July 21, 1959. A who's who of the jazz world attended the solemn occasion, including Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Tony Scott, Buddy Rogers, and John Hammond.
                       Holiday poses with her dog Mister in her dressing room in 1946.
Considered one of the best jazz vocalists of all time, Holiday has been an influence on many other performers who have followed in her footsteps. Her autobiography was made into the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues with famed singer Diana Ross playing the part of Holiday, which helped renew interest in Holiday's recordings. In 2000, Billie Holiday was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Diana Ross handling the honors.
   Holiday sits with fellow jazz legends, vocalist Sarah Vaughn, trumpeter Louis Armstrong and friend Howard Dennis in 1950

                             Holiday poses with her dog Mister in her dressing room in 1946.
Holiday recorded extensively for four labels: Columbia Records, issued on its subsidiary labels Brunswick Records, Vocalion Records, and OKeh Records, from 1933 through 1942, and the label proper in 1958; Commodore Records in 1939 and 1944; Decca Records from 1944 through 1950; and Verve Records, also on its earlier imprint Clef Records, from 1952 through 1958. Many of Holiday’s recordings appeared on 78 rpm records prior to the long-playing vinyl record era, and only Clef, Verve, and Columbia issued Holiday albums in the 1950s during her lifetime that were not compilations of previously released material. Many compilations have been issued since her death; comprehensive box sets and a selection of live recordings are listed below.

Grammy Hall of Fame
Billie Holiday was posthumously inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, which is a special Grammy award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least twenty-five years old, and that have “qualitative or historical significance.”

Billie Holiday: Grammy Hall of Fame Awards
Year Recorded Title Genre Label Year Inducted Notes 
1944 “Embraceable You” Jazz (single) Commodore 2005 
1958 Lady in Satin Jazz (album) Columbia 2000 
1945 “Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?)” Jazz (single) Decca 1989 
1939 “Strange Fruit” Jazz (single) Commodore 1978 Listed also in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress in 2002 
1941 “God Bless the Child” Jazz (single) Okeh 1976 

Grammy Best Historical Album
The Grammy Award for Best Historical Album has been presented since 1979.
2002 Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday Columbia 1933-1944 Winner 
1994 The Complete Billie Holiday Verve 1945-1959 Winner 
1992 Billie Holiday — The Complete Decca Recordings Verve 1944-1950 Winner 
1980 Billie Holiday — Giants of Jazz Time-Life Winner


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