Billie Holiday, born Eleanora Fagan, was one of the pioneering women in the jazz music industry. With a music career of almost thirty years and practically no formal training, Holiday was known for her incredible vocals.
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to a young teenage couple, Holiday had journeyed to Harlem, New York at age 13 to join her mother in what turned out to be a brothel located at 151 W. 140th street. Her mother, a prostitute at the time, had 13 year-old Holiday follow in her footsteps charging $5 a client. Not long after, the brothel was raided, sending both Holiday and her mother to prison.
After being released at 14 years old, Holiday began to sing at nightclubs around the city and took her stage name from actress Billie Dove, and musician Clarence Holiday, her father. Young Holiday teamed with neighbor and tenor sax player, Kenneth Hollan from 1929-1931. As a team, the two performed at clubs around NYC. Around the same time, Holiday had connected with her father who was playing with Fletcher Henderson’s band.
At age 17, Holiday replaced singer Monette Moore at Covan’s, a club on West 132nd Street. Producer John Hammond heard Holiday first sing in early 1933 and arranged for her to make her recording debut, at age 18, with Benny Goodman. They sung two songs: “Your Mother’s Son-In-Law” and “Riffin’ the Scotch.” Selling 5,000 copies, “Riffin’ the Scotch” was Holiday’s first hit.
In 1935, Holiday was signed to Brunswick Records by John Hammond to record pop tunes with Teddy Wilson in the new “swing” genre. Holiday became a revolutionary improviser with her new renditions of classic songs. With Wilson, Holiday took pop tunes such as “Yankee Doodle Went To Town”, and turned them into jazz interpretations. Due to fiscal reasons, Holiday was never given any royalties for her work and was paid a flat fee, which saved the record label money.
Holiday was in direct competition with Ella Fitzgerald, the lead vocalist for the Chick Webb Band, who was in competition with Holiday’s Count Bassie band. After being fired from Count Bassie, for her difficult work ethic, Holiday was hired by Artie Shaw. This marked her place as one of the first black women to work with a white orchestra and as the first time a full-time-employed black female signer toured the segregated Southern US with a white bandleader. Facing much scrutiny, Shaw was known to defend his vocalist. Holiday often could not sit on the bandstand with other vocalists because she was black and recalls in her autobiography that Shaw once said, “I want you on the bandstand like Helen Forrest, Tony Pastor and everyone else.” In one instance in Louisville, Kentucky a man called Holiday a “nigger wench” in which case Holiday was escorted offstage for losing her temper.
In November of 1938 Holiday was asked to use the service elevator at the Lincoln Hotel, as white patrons complained, and that was the last straw for Holiday. Shortly after, she left the band due to such treatment. By the late 30s after touring with Count Bassie and Artie Shaw, she had solidified herself as an established artist in the recording industry. She even gained attention when her songs “What A Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Easy Living” were being imitated by artists across America and seen as jazz standards.
In 1938, Holiday’s single, “I’m Gonna Lock My Heart” was ranked 6th as the most-played song for September of that year. In the late 30s Holiday was recording for Columbia and was introduced to “Strange Fruit,” a song based on a poem about lynching written by Abel Meerpool. Her performance of the poem became her biggest-selling record and gained her immense popularity.
On May 16, 1947 she was arrested for possession of narcotics in her New York apartment. After appearing in court she was sentenced to Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia. Being released in March of 1948 for good behavior, she was in the midst of scheduling an appearance at Carnegie Hall, but feared failure. Much to her surprise she reached a record for ticket sales for the venue and wowed the crowd.
By the 1950s drug abuse, drinking and abusive relationships caused Holiday’s health to worsen. By early 1959 Holiday was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. By May, she was housed in Metropolitan Hospital in NY for treatment and while there, arrested and handcuffed for drug possession for the rest of her life. By July 17, 1959 Holiday passed from pulmonary edema and heart failure induced by cirrhosis of the liver.