Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915, in Baltimore, Maryland. She borrowed the name “Billie” from one of her favorite movie actresses, Billie Dove. Born to an unwed teenage mother, Sadie Fagan, Holiday’s childhood was one of poverty. Her father, Clarence Holiday (later a jazz guitarist) married Sadie three years later. He never lived with the family, choosing his musical career over them. As a child Billie started working very young, running errands and cleaning a house of prostitution. It was there that she first heard Louis Armstrong and the great singer Bessie Smith records through the open windows.

In 1928 Holiday moved to New York City with her mother, who began work as a housemaid, but the 1929 depression soon left her mother without work. In 1932 Holiday auditioned for a singing job and was hired. For the next few years she sang in Harlem clubs, then her career took off when Benny Goodman (1901–1986) used her on a record. But it was through a series of recordings made between 1935 and 1939 that her international reputation was established.[1]Dunn, p.1.

During the late 1930s she was also a big band vocalist, first with Count Basie (1904–1984) in 1937 and then with Artie Shas in 1938. Holiday’s relationship with Basie’s star tenor saxophonist Lester Young (1909–1959) is the stuff of legend. They were great musical coworkers and great friends for life. They died in the same year. Young named her “Lady Day” (or simply “Lady”), and that title became her jazz world name from the mid-1930s on. She in turn labeled him “Pres” (the “President of Tenor Saxophonists”).[2]Dunn, p.2.

Many successful tunes were recorded, interweaving Young’s tenor saxophone with Holiday’s voice. After the late 1930s they rarely recorded together, but to the end they remained soul mates. Holiday’s career reached its peak in the late 1930s. In 1938 she worked a long engagement at Cafe Society. The following year she joined Benny Goodman on a radio broadcast.[3]Dunn, p.3.

Two songs of the period are noteworthy. The first, “Strange Fruit,” is a detailed description of a lynching. Columbia record company considered it too inflammatory and refused to issue it. A small record company, Commodore, finally released it in 1939. It became a big money-maker because of the tune on the record’s other side, “Fine and Mellow,” a blues song written by Holiday. Another tune always associated with her is “Gloomy Sunday,” which spoke of such deep despair (misery) that it was kept off the airwaves for a time.[4]Dunn, p.4.

By the mid-1940’s Holiday the legend was fading. Holiday was arrested many times for illegal drug use. After one arrest, at her own request, she was placed in a federal rehabilitation center at Alderson, West Virginia, for a year and a day. Just ten days after being released she gave a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City.[5]Dunn, p.7.

Neither Holiday’s first husband, Joe Guy, a jazz guitarist who she divorced, or Louis McKay, who survived her, seemed able to save Holiday from herself. By the 1950’s alcohol and marijuana had strained her voice, so that it was unnaturally deep and grainy and occasionally cracked during performances. Nevertheless, her singing was sustained by her highly individual style, the familiarity she projected, and her special way with the words of a song.[6]Dunn, p.8.

Holiday made her final public appearance in a concert at the Phoenix Theatre in New York City on May 25, 1959. She died in Metropolitan Hospital in New York City on July 17, 1959, of “congestion of the lungs complicated by heart failure.” At the time of her death she had been under arrest in her hospital bed for illegal possession of drugs.[7]Dunn, p.9.

The incomparable Billie Holiday at Georgette’s Tea Room, a favorite gathering place of Miami’s black elite. It was located at 2550 Northwest Fifty-first Street. The latest fashions from New York and Paris were strutted in this room. Sunday afternoon teas were commonly held. It was, as my mother (who was sanctified) said of it, “a place for those black women to show out!” The building still stands today. It is a private home. [8]Historical Museum of Southern Florida


1 Dunn, p.1.
2 Dunn, p.2.
3 Dunn, p.3.
4 Dunn, p.4.
5 Dunn, p.7.
6 Dunn, p.8.
7 Dunn, p.9.
8 Historical Museum of Southern Florida