It’s been 100 years since Billie Holiday made her debut in the world. To celebrate her centennial, here’s a look at the life and music of the amazing Lady Day.
Jazz legend Billie Holiday poured her heart into each song, making each one her own with her distinct style. Born on April 7, 1915, Holiday once said that “If I’m going to sing like someone else, then I don’t need to sing at all.” She saw her voice as a musical instrument, as she explained in Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff. “I feel like I am playing a horn. I try to improvise . . . What comes out is what I feel.”
Not only did she mesmerize us with her voice, Holiday also lived a fascinating life filled with tremendous ups and downs. She managed to survive a difficult childhood—often left in the care of cold-hearted relatives and even spent time in a Catholic reform school before joining her mother in New York City. Before she found fame as a singer, Holiday did whatever it took to survive, including working a prostitute for a while. She became one of jazz’s great stars, performing with likes of Count Basie and Artie Shaw. Holiday even appeared in a film with Duke Ellington. Her great talent, however, was later diminished by bad relationships and alcohol and drug abuse.
It’s been 100 years since this amazing performer made her debut in the world. To celebrate her centennial, let’s take a few minutes to explore the life and music of the great Lady Day.
The woman you know as Billie Holiday started out life as Eleanora Harris, according to her birth certificate. Some sources say she was also known as Eleanora Fagan. Her parents, Sadie Fagan and Clarence Holiday, were both teenagers when she was born, and her musician father took off when she was still a baby. That strained relationship didn’t stop her from borrowing his last name when she became a performer. During her childhood, she also used her stepfather’s last name, Gough, after her mother married longshoreman Phil Gough for a time.
Holiday took the name Billie from Billie Dove, a silent film star she adored. (Photo: Alfred Cheney Johnston [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith were among Holiday’s biggest early influences. As a child, she even took a job doing chores and running errands for a local madam in exchange for a chance to play records on the madam’s Victrola. Holiday later got a chance to work with Armstrong with the two of them starring in the 1947 musical New Orleans.
“Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?)” proved to be Holiday’s only major chart success. Released in 1944, the song had been written for her by Jimmy Davis, Roger Ramirez and James Sherman. It climbed to the number 5 spot on the R&B charts the following year and made it into the top 20 of the pop charts as well.
Saxophonist Lester Young gave Holiday her famous nickname “Lady Day.” Holiday returned the favor, choosing to rename him “Pres” (or “Prez” depending on the source). The nickname was short for president of the saxophone, according to Donald Clarke’s Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon. The pair became friends in the mid-1930s and later toured together with Count Basie. They also recorded together on a number of different projects, including her 1957 television special The Sound of Jazz. Biographer Farah Jasmine Griffin described Young as Holiday’s “creative soulmate.”
“Strange Fruit” was one of her biggest and most controversial hits. The song’s lyrics came from a poem written by Abel Meeropol, a teacher and social activist. He was inspired to write it after seeing a photograph of a lynching. The image so deeply disturbed him that he penned the poem in protest of racial violence. Meeropol later set the poem to music, and the resulting song found its way to Billie Holiday. She started performing it at Café Society, an integrated nightclub in New York. Columbia, her record label at the time, didn’t want her to record the song at first because of its controversial subject matter. Holiday ended up releasing the song on the Commodore label in 1939, and it went on to sell a million copies.
Holiday’s life sometimes inspired her art. She wrote the lyrics for her much beloved work, “God Bless the Child,” after a fight with her mother about money, according to Holiday’s autobiography. Holiday worked with Arthur Herzog Jr. on this tune and several others, including “Don’t Explain.” The phrase “Don’t Explain” is what Billie uttered to her first husband, Jimmy Monroe, came home with lipstick on his collar.
Holiday wrestled with her addictions until the very end. According to several reports, she started using heroin in the early 1940s during her marriage to Jimmy Monroe. She was arrested on drug charges in 1947 and ended up spending months in jail for possession. Two years later, Holiday was once again caught with drugs by the police.
By the 1950s, Holiday’s battle with drugs and alcohol was taking its toll on her voice and career. She managed to make a few more albums and even undertook a European tour in 1954 before her demons got the best of her. Feeling ill, she went into a New York hospital in May 1959 where she was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. Holiday still couldn’t manage to part ways with her heroin habit, despite her poor physical condition. She was busted by the police in her hospital room for drug possession that June. Holiday never stood trial for the charges, however. She died on July 17, 1959, at the age of 44.