Born Eleanora Fagan, April 7, 1915, in Baltimore, MD; died of cardiac arrest, July 17, 1959, in New York City; daughter of Clarence Holiday (a jazz guitarist) and Sadie Fagan (a domestic); married James Monroe (marriage ended); married Louis McKay (separated). Jazz singer. Began career in Harlem clubs, 1930; made recording debut with Benny Goodman ensemble, 1933; performed and recorded with various jazz bands, including those of Teddy Wilson, 1935-39, Count Basie, 1937, and Artie Shaw, 1938; solo recording artist and performer in theaters and nightclubs, 1940s and 1950s. Appeared in short film Rhapsody in Black, 1935, feature film New Orleans, 1946, and on television program Sound of Jazz, 1957.

Billie Holiday is considered by many to be the greatest of all jazz singers. In a tragically abbreviated singing career that lasted less than three decades, her evocative phrasing and poignant delivery profoundly influenced vocalists who followed her. Although her warm, feathery voice inhabited a limited range, she used it like an accomplished jazz instrumentalist, stretching and condensing phrases in an ever-shifting dialogue with accompanying musicians. Famous for delivering lyrics a bit behind the beat, she alternately endowed them with sadness, sensuality, languor, and irony. Rarely singing blues, Holiday performed mostly popular material, communicating deep emotion by stripping down rather than dressing up words and lines. "If you find a tune that's got something to do with you, you just feel it, and when you sing it, other people feel it, too," Holiday once explained. According to the Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, "She was the first and is perhaps still the greatest of jazz singers, if the essence of jazz singing is to make the familiar sound fresh, and to make any lyric come alive with personal meaning for the listener."

Holiday's life was a study in hardship. Her parents married when she was three, but her musician father was seldom present and the couple soon divorced. Receiving little schooling as a child, Holiday scrubbed floors and ran errands for a nearby brothel so she could listen to idols Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith on the Victrola in its parlor. Brutally raped at ten, she was sent to a reformatory for "seducing" her adult attacker; at fourteen she was jailed for prostitution. Determined to find work as a dancer or singer in Harlem, Holiday moved to New York City in 1928 and landed her first job at Jerry Preston's Log Cabin, where her vocals moved customers to tears. Discovered in another Harlem club by jazz record producer John Hammond in 1932, she made her first recording a year later with Benny Goodman's orchestra. She began to record regularly for Columbia, usually under the direction of Teddy Wilson, backed by small studio bands comprised of the day's best jazz sidemen. These included saxophonist and soulmate Lester Young, whose style approximated Holiday's own; it was he who gave the pretty, dignified young singer the nickname "Lady Day."

Intended largely for a black jukebox audience, the Wilson discs--mostly silly and second-rate love songs that white singers had declined to record--were quickly and cheaply made. But Holiday and company transformed them into jazz treasures, immediately appreciated by musicians, critics, and jazz afficianados, if not the public at large. These hundred-odd songs--delivered in a light, bouyant style--are today considered among Holiday's most significant work. Forgoing club engagements in l937 to tour with Count Basie's orchestra, Holiday went on to become one of the first black vocalists to be featured with a white band when she fronted for Artie Shaw a year later. Life on the road proved bitter for the singer, though; racial segregation made simple things like eating, sleeping, and going to the bathroom logistically difficult. Fed up when she could not enter one hotel through the front door with the rest of the Shaw orchestra, Holiday abandoned touring, returning to New York clubs and cabarets as a solo artist.

With Columbia's permission Holiday recorded "Strange Fruit," a controversial song about southern lynchings, for Commodore in 1939. It became a favorite of the interracial crowd for whom she performed at the Cafe Society, a Greenwich Village haunt of intellectuals and the political left. Holiday began to attract a popular following and indulged her taste for slow, melancholy songs about love gone bad, which communicated the hunger and despair that were starting to pervade her own life. Introduced to opium and heroin in the early forties by first husband James Monroe, she began her lifelong struggle with narcotics and alcohol addiction--Monroe the first in a succession of men who would feed that addiction, squander her earnings, and physically abuse her. Jailed for a year on drug charges after a sensational trial in l947, Holiday had her cabaret license revoked and was thus prohibited from performing in the clubs and nightspots that suited her best. Unable to stay drug-free as long as she remained involved with the music scene, she would face other arrests.

Holiday recorded for Decca from 1944 to 1950. Because the company sought to make her over into a popular singer, much of her material for that label was overarranged, dominated by strings, and largely ordinary. Still, Holiday's artistry prevailed in songs like "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do" and "Lover Man." Recording for Verve from 1952 to 1957, the singer frequently returned to the small group format that best fit her glimmering voice, but by then her instrument had begun to falter from years of abuse. Her desire and range dwindling, her voice scratchy and tired, Holiday still retained her unique timing and phrasing and--when she wanted--her ability to move listeners. Recording many American standards for Verve by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and Rodgers and Hart, her personal interpretations made them seem new again. While deemed too painful to listen to by some critics, Holiday's later recordings are esteemed by others, who find the singer's ability to communicate at its peak. In High Fidelity Steve Putterman, for instance, judged her Verve recordings "devastating," because "tonal beauty and emotional expressiveness worked inversely for Holiday: The more her pipes gave out, the more penetrating and affecting her delivery became."

Although industry insiders in the late 1950s--Frank Sinatra for one--acknowledged her as "unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years," when the singer succumbed in 1959 to cirrhosis of the liver, kidney trouble, and cardiac arrest at the age of forty-four, her passing was noted by the general public as much for her lurid personal life as for her musical contributions. Time has since diminished the glare of Holiday's frailties and her musical gifts shine brighter than ever. Describing Holiday in a Down Beat review of one Verve collection as "the woman who taught the world that the interaction and feeling of jazz musicians was the ultimate key to interpreting the great American song lyric," Will Friedwald remarked: "I guess you can't inject so much real passion into a song without scaring the pants off some people.... Billie Holiday on Verve, 1946-59 is essential music by the most haunting and hypnotic voice--indeed, sound--in all of recorded music."

by Nancy Pear

Billie Holiday's Career

Billie Holiday's Awards

Esquire silver award, 1945 and 1946, gold award, 1944 and 1947; Metronome poll winner, 1945-46.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

September 30, 2004: Holiday was inducted into the inaugural class of Lincoln Center's Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame. Source: "Jazz At Lincoln Center To Induct Inaugural Class of Musicians into The Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame" (Press Release), September 30, 2004.

Further Reading



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