Billie Holiday, of blessed memory, was one of many celebrities who was born and raised up in a turbulent home. While growing up, she came across several pit stops that almost crushed her chances of becoming a superstar in life but while she was busy searching for a better job one of those days, her big breakthrough came knocking. Today, the legendary performer’s name is not only written in gold across the world but also in the hearts of music lovers, particularly within the jazz community.
Holiday is one iconic female jazz influencer who successfully made a mark for herself with her voice and microphone while her long-spanning musical career lasted. This article covers her biography, childhood, life, and death as well as other interesting facts about the legendary jazz singer you can’t find elsewhere.
Billie Holiday’s Biography
It was on the 7th day of April 1915 that Billie Holiday was born to an unmarried teenage couple called Clarence Holiday (father) and Sarah Julia “Sadie” Fagan (mother). After her birth in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the United States, she was named Eleanora Fagan. Billie was an American by nationality and belonged to African-American ancestry. Though she was born in Philadelphia, she was a native of Harlem, which is in New York City, in the U.S. Her mother, Sarah decided to relocate to Philadelphia after she was sent out of her parents’ house in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of Baltimore, Maryland, at the age of nineteen for becoming pregnant.
After Billie’s birth, her mother couldn’t receive assistance from her parents so she approached her half-sister (Eva Miller), who was older and married at that time, to help her keep Eleanora in her house in Baltimore. Miller later agreed to assist her but not long after, Billie’s father abandoned his young family to pursue a career as a guitarist and jazz banjo player.
According to sources, the jazz singer borrowed the name “Billie” from her New York City, New York-born actress Billie Dove, who was her favorite actress. As regards to information about her family background, it is not available at the time of writing.
Billie Holiday’s childhood was not only riddled with poverty but it was turbulent as well. In the first decade of her life, she was largely raised by Eva Miller’s mother-in-law, Martha Miller because her mother was always absent. In other to make ends meet, Sarah did several odd jobs, including serving on passenger railroads.
Billie Holiday attended a Catholic reform school called the House of the Good Shepherd. But before then, she was arraigned before a juvenile court on January 5, 1925, at the age of nine for frequently skipping school. After spending nine months in care, Holiday was eventually “paroled” to her mother on October 3, 1925. The jazz legend eventually dropped out of school at the age of eleven.
On December 24, 1926, Billie’s mother caught a neighbor – Wilbur Rich attempting to rape her daughter. Immediately, she resisted, fought back and he was arrested. The singer was later placed under protective custody as a state witness in the case, after which she was released in February 1927. She would later find a job in a brothel, where she ran errands and scrubbed marble steps. Towards the end of 1928, Billie’s mother moved to Harlem, New York, and left the singer behind with Eva Miller. Not long after she arrived in Harlem, she became a prostitute at her landlady’s Brothel. By early 1929, Holiday decided to join her mother in Harlem and after a few days she moved in, she joined her mother in her prostitution business, charging $5 a client – she was not yet 14 at the time. The two were arrested on May 2, 1929, and later sent to prison after the house was raided by the police. Sarah was released in July while her daughter was released three months later. Her mother passed away in the late 1940s.
Life and Death of the Jazz Singer
Nicknamed Lady Day by a member of Count Basie’s orchestra, sax player Lester Young, Billie Holiday owes her rise to prominence to American producer John Hammond, who discovered her at the age of 18 and went on to organize her first commercial recording session with iconic American clarinetist, Benjamin David Goodman.
Her career, which spanned for thirty years, saw her rise to immense popularity as a result of her voice and engagements in the entertainment industry. Billie was the first Afro-American woman to work with a white orchestra in 1938. She debuted her iconic song Strange Fruit at New York’s first integrated nightclub, Cafe Society in a 1939 performance. The song was originally written by Abel Meeropol as a poem.
Famed for titling her head back on stage and wearing white gardenias on her hair, Billie voiced at least 350 different songs and 38 charting singles during her lifetime. When she first performed before a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall in 1948, the jazz influencer received three curtain calls. She toured in Europe in 1954 and was honored with several awards, including Esquire Magazine’s Gold Award for Best Leading Female Vocalist (1944), Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (1987), and others.
The singer also appeared in a slew of high-profile movies, TV shows, and TV series, including the ABC reality series The Comeback Story (1953), The Tonight Show hosted by Steve Allen (1955), and New Orleans, wherein she starred alongside her role model Louis Armstrong as a maid in 1947.
Billie Holiday, who never learned how to read music, had $750 as her life savings when she died. The Philadelphia-born star was considered to being one of the highest paid performers of her time though much of her income was channeled to hard drugs.
The 5 feet 5 inches singer was not married at the time of her death although she had previously married a man called James Monroe in 1941. Their relationship only lasted for some months and it didn’t produce any children. She is said to have had a marital relationship with American jazz trumpeter Joe Guy from 1951–1957. Joe was a drug-addict whose flourishing career got sidelined due to the influence of hard drugs. It was while the two were staying together that Holiday began using heroin. Billie was once arrested for narcotics possession and she was sentenced to a year and a day in prison. She is said to have also married a man known as Louis McKay in 1957 in Mexico but there’s no information about their union.
Billie Holiday died on July 17, 1959, at the age of 44 at Metropolitan Hospital Center, New York City, New York, due to heart and liver problems as a result of alcohol and drug-related problems. Her funeral was attended by over 3,000 people at St. Paul the Apostle Roman Catholic Church on July 21, 1959, in New York. She was later buried at Saint Raymond’s Cemetery in Bronx County, in New York.
In 1972, Billie Holiday’s autobiography ‘Lady Sings The Blues’, which was published in 1956, was made into a movie titled: Lady Sings the Blues. Her part was played by renowned actress/singer Diana Ross.