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Associated Press

Happy Birthday, Billie Holiday, Legendary Jazz Singer

April 07, 2010
by findingDulcinea Staff
Billie Holiday’s voice carried a soulful sadness that echoed throughout her short life. Although she lived to see fame and success, she died a tragic death. Nearly half a century after her death, Holiday is still remembered and revered for her unique musical talent.

Billie Holiday’s Early Days

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Billie Holiday was born as Eleanora Fagan Gough on April 7, 1915, to Sadie Fagan in Philadelphia, Pa. Her father, “widely believed” to be jazz musician Clarence Holiday, according to Biography.com, was merely a teenager at the time, and left her mother when Eleanora was still an infant. Sadie was also a teenager at the time, and struggled to care for her daughter.

Eleanora spent time in and out of the House of Good Shepherd, a school for troubled girls, and in the late 1920s, she moved with her mother to New York City. She worked as a prostitute in Harlem for some time and around 1930, she started singing in local Harlem nightclubs.

Much of Billie Holiday’s early life remains a secret. The distorted facts and tales that made up her autobiography, “Lady Sings the Blues,” have painted a confusing and unreliable portrait of the singer’s past.

One detail is certain, though: In 1933, renowned record producer John Hammond heard the singer perform. He was so taken by her signature sultry voice that he introduced her to Benny Goodman, who invited her to perform the song “Your Mother’s Son-in-Law” on his latest record. Billie Holiday’s career was about to begin.

Billie Holiday's Notable Accomplishments

After she recorded her first song with Goodman, Holiday spent the next year making the rounds of the city’s competitive nightclub scene, choosing her stage name—Billie—in honor of her favorite actress, Billie Dove.

During the next few years, Holiday was in and out of the recording studio. In 1937, Hammond paired Billie’s vocals with the Count Basie Orchestra. In 1938, she toured with Artie Shaw and became one of the first African-American vocalists to be featured with an all-white orchestra.

Although Holiday didn’t work with Shaw and Basie very long, the music she produced during these years would be among some of her finest. She recorded several singles, including “Miss Brown to You” and “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” and was dubbed “Lady Day” by friend and saxophonist Lester Young, who was part of Count Basie’s orchestra.

In 1939, she recorded the controversial song “Strange Fruit,” which described in poetically graphic detail the lynching of a black person. Several radio stations banned the song, but its underground popularity earned Holiday a loyal following.

The NY Times reported that Q a British music publication, named "Strange Fruit" one of "ten songs that actually changed the world." The Times also noted that a U.S. federal judge referenced the song in ruling that capital punishment by hanging is inherently cruel.
The Guardian’s Dorian Lynskey calls Strange Fruit “the first great protest song.” Samuel Grafton wrote in the New York Post that it was “a fantastically perfect work of art, one which reversed the usual relationship between a black entertainer and her white audience: ‘I have been entertaining you,’ she seems to say, ‘now you just listen to me.’ If the anger of the exploited ever mounts high enough in the South, it now has its Marseillaise.”

Over the next decade, Holiday became a major vocal presence on the jazz scene, releasing the hits “God Bless the Child” and “Crazy He Calls Me”.

The Rest of the Story

The final years of Billie’s life seemed to mirror the sadness of her childhood. By the mid-1940s, she had developed a dependency on both alcohol and drugs. She was arrested for drug possession in 1947 and had to serve time in jail. Even though her career continued, so did her heroin addiction. Eventually, Holiday succumbed to alcohol- and drug-related illnesses, and passed away on July 17, 1959 at the age of 44.

Revered as one of the best jazz vocalists in history, Holiday left a lasting legacy. In 1972, her autobiography was made into a film, “Lady Sings the Blues,” with Diana Ross in the starring role. In 2000, Holiday was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Over the years, many artists have covered Holiday’s songs in commemoration of her. The Irish band U2 also honored her with their 1988 hit, “Angel of Harlem.”
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