Biography of Billie Holiday

One of the Greatest Jazz Singers of All Time

A picture of Billie Holiday, one of the greatest jazz singers of all time.
Jazz singer Billie Holiday in New York City (circa 1947). (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Billie Holiday was one of the greatest American jazz singers. Because of the depth of feeling she lent to the genre, Holiday is easily considered the most recognizable, if not the most impacting, jazz singer of all time. Holiday's mournful rendition of "Strange Fruit," a song bespeaking the horrors of black lynching in America, is considered the race's first political protest song. Holiday's singular career spanned nearly 30 years before the twin demons of alcoholism and drug addiction took her voice and, ultimately, her life at the young age of 44.

 

Dates:  April 7, 1915 -- July 17, 1959

Also Known As: Elinore Harris (born as); Lady Day

Like a Motherless Child

Billie Holiday's short, torrid life began on April 7, 1915 -- the consequence of her parents' chance meeting at a carnival's hot dog stand. Of African American and Irish descent, Holiday was born Elinore Harris (which became "Eleanora") in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to a 19-year-old mother, Sarah 'Sadie' Fagan, and 17-year-old father, Clarence Holiday. Billie Holiday's parents were never married.

Billie's absent, alcoholic father, was a jazz musician who played in the popular Fletcher Henderson band in the 1920s. He denied paternity of his daughter until she became famous.

Billie’s mother, Sadie, had been kicked out of her parents' home in Baltimore for becoming pregnant, moved to Philadelphia to have her baby. The family was deeply religious and Sadie was considered an outcast -- even though she was also born illegimately.

 

Struggling and on her own, Sadie arranged for Billie to stay in Baltimore with Ava Miller, Sadie’s older half-sister, while she left to work on passenger trains.

However, Ava was a newlywed and asked her mother-in-law, Martha Miller, to take the child in. “Grandma Miller” was deemed a tyrant by irreverent Billie, who came to resent her mother for not being around.

But in 1920, Sadie married 25-year-old longshoreman Philip Gough. Billie liked her new stepdad and enjoyed the stability he provided. After only three years, however, the marriage ended when Gough left -- leaving Billie and Sadie literally out in the cold. With the rent payment in arrears, the pair was forced to move out.

Once again, Billie was abandoned. Once again, Sadie turned to Martha Miller to care for her daughter while she returned to work on the railroad.

Early Trouble

When Gough left, Holiday turned to the streets to fill the void. She began playing hooky from school and was brought before Judge Williams in January 1925 for truancy. The magistrate deemed nine-year-old Holiday a minor without proper care and guardianship.

As a result, Holiday was sent to the House of the Good Shepherd for Colored Girls, a Catholic reformatory. Holiday was given the pseudonym "Madge" and was the youngest of any of the other girls there. After nine months, Billie was released to the care of her mother in October 1925.

Doing her best to stay in town to raise her daughter, Sadie opened a soul food restaurant called the East Side Grille. She and Billie worked long hours, but there was never enough money.

By the age of 11, Holiday had dropped out of school completely for life in a faster lane.

On December 26, 1926, Sadie returned home with her boyfriend to discover a neighbor, Wilbert Rich, raping her daughter. The man was arrested. Billie, the state's witness, was placed under protective custody at the House of the Good Shepherd in the rape case. Billie's care and upbringing were once again called into question.

Rich was found guilty of "Rape of a Minor 14-16," even though Holiday was only 11 at the time of the rape. Rich received a sentence of only three months in jail. At her release in February 1927, Billie was almost 12 years old.

A Sordid Life

Sadie had packed up and moved to Harlem, New York in search of work -- again leaving her rebellious, confused, and naively vulnerable 13-year-old behind.

Billie was big for her age and had a woman's body.

After dropping out of school in the fifth grade, Holiday found work running errands for Alice Dean at a nearby brothel. Listening to Dean's Victrola while performing chores in the parlor, Holiday was exposed to the jazz sounds of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. Singing along to their records greatly influenced Holiday's method of expression and singing style in her later career.

Not only was she already smoking, drinking, and cussing, Holiday loved nightlife and began singing at local dives for money. She started hustling and “turning tricks” also -- seeing a way to earn good, fast money and not work hard like her mother. Some of the men beat Holiday to break her strong spirit, which established the horrible pattern of acceptance of violent abuse in her later life.

Billie left Baltimore in early 1929 to join her mother in New York. Expecting the high life, Holiday was shocked to find herself working beside Sadie as a maid and barely surviving. Then the Great Depression struck, and there was no work at all.

Their landlady, Florence Williams, was a sophisticated, stylish woman who offered the ladies jobs. Williams was actually a madame who ran a “good time” house in Harlem. Desperate for money, Sadie and Billie went to work as prostitutes, charging $5 per client.

But on May 2, 1929, the pair was arrested during a raid and sentenced to hard labor at a workhouse. Sadie was released in July, but 14-year-old Billie -- who said she was 21 -- wasn't released until October.

Making a Living

Times were still hard and the most menial job could not be found. Walking into a smoky Harlem speakeasy in 1930, 15-year-old Holiday inquired about a dancing job. Feeling sorry for Holiday after being denied the job, the pianist asked if she could sing.

After wowing the owners singing "Trav'lin' All Alone," Holiday got the $2-per-night-six-nights-a-week job. 

Holiday went from club to club singing for a year, finding herself performing at Harlem's popular Pod and Jerry's Log Cabin.

During this time, she took the professional name of “Billie Holiday,” taking the first name from her favorite movie star, Billie Dove, and using her father’s last name.

Beginning a Career

In 1932, while filling in for a better-known performer at Harlem nightclub Monette's, Holiday was discovered by record mogul John Hammond. Deeply moved by Holiday's unique and emotive style, Hammond proceeded to launch Billie's professional career, acquiring bookings in New York's finest clubs.

Hammond also arranged three recording sessions for Holiday with the Benny Goodman Orchestra. In 1933, 18-year-old Holiday made her first recording on Columbia's label with  “Your Mother's Son-in-Law.”

Due to Hammond's reputation, Holiday had the opportunity to collaborate with many jazz greats of the Swing era. In 1935, Hammond paired Holiday with famed jazz pianist Teddy Wilson, making a number of recordings together. The same year, legendary bandleader Duke Ellington asked Holiday to sing in his Paramount short film, Symphony in Black, furthering her jazz career.

"Lady Day"

In March 1935, while performing at the Cotton Club, Holiday met tenor saxophonist Lester Young. At the time, Young was playing with Fletcher Henderson's orchestra. Their paths crossed again in 1937 when Holiday recorded to the accompaniment of the great Count Basie's orchestra, for which Young played periodically. 

Holiday and Young shared a mutual respect for each other's giftedness. While living with Holiday and her mother for a brief period, Young began calling Billie "Duchess" and Sadie "Lady." But Billie preferred the nickname Lady, and thus "Lady Day" was born, which stuck.

Many recordings done between 1935 and 1942 with Young produced Holiday's greatest successes. Because Young was sentient to Holiday's unorthodox style, the duo created some of the best jazz recordings of all time. They remained close friends throughout the rest of their lives.

Although aloof with people, even family, Holiday was a true dog lover. She was known to travel with a pocket-sized poodle, two bottle-fed chihuahuas, and an exquisite Great Dane. But Holiday's favorite was a protective boxer named Mister, whom she dressed in mink coats.

On Her Own

Holiday performed with Artie Shaw's orchestra in Madison Square Garden March 1938, which resulted in a tour of the segregated South. Being a black woman singing and traveling with an all-white orchestra, Holiday encountered unbelievable racial hatred. When made to enter the side door of a hotel and not the front door with the rest of the band, a devastated Holiday stopped touring and left the orchestra in December.

In 1939 Holiday headlined as a solo act at the racy Cafe Society, a recently-opened interracial club in New York's Greenwich Village. During this time, 24-year-old Holiday began developing her trademark stage persona -- singing with her head tilted back and wearing gardenias in her hair.

At the request of club manager Barney Josephson, Holiday debuted two of what would become her most memorable songs: "God Bless the Child" and "Strange Fruit." “Strange Fruit,” written by Lewis Allan, was a piercing, haunting song about the lynching of two African American men (Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith) in Marion, Indiana in August 1930. 

Hammond opposed Holiday's introducing the song into her act -- fearing it was not suited to her delicateness. Holiday also was afraid to sing "Strange Fruit" initially, not knowing how the patrons would react.

Though the song garnered Holiday a popular following among sophisticates, "Strange Fruit" stirred a great deal of controversy in racist America. As a result, Holiday's record company, Columbia, refused to release the song. After Holiday recorded instead on the Commodore label, many radio stations refused to play "Strange Fruit."

Life Imitating Art

Holiday also had a difficult time touring, becoming angry on several occasions and leaving the stage because of hecklers and racial attacks. Holiday entertained primarily in New York during the 1940s as a result of the racism she encountered elsewhere in America.

Many of Holiday's songs rang of hopelessness and unrequited love. Though Holiday’s career skyrocketed with her heartfelt rendering of such songs, her personal life was now imitating her art.

Holiday possessed a hopeless affinity to addicted men who beat her and stole her money. Because of the painfully familiar manner which she sang songs like "Gloomy Sunday" (1941), Holiday became the unwitting accomplice to suicides the world over.

In August 1941, Holiday married James Monroe, who introduced her to hard drugs -- specifically, opium and heroin. He would be the first in a string of abusive men to start the downward spiral of Holiday's life into the abyss of drug addiction.

In 1945, while still married to Monroe, Holiday became involved with trumpet player Joe Guy, who brought more heroin to the mix. By the time Sadie died in October 1945, Holiday was so drug-addled that she was late to her own mother's funeral.

Even though she was separated from both men by 1947, the damage was done. Holiday's lifelong battle to kick drugs and alcohol would eventually be lost. 

Successful Failure

Though her lifestyle was taking a toll, Holiday had a string of successes in the 1940s. Specifically, she performed at the Metropolitan Opera House, being the first black woman to do so.

In 1944, Holiday signed with Decca Records with whom she released some of her best music until 1950. Holiday's recording of "Lover Man" in 1945 was a major commercial success.

Holiday went to Hollywood in February 1945 to perform with Norman Granz and the Jazz Philharmonic Orchestra.

In September 1946, Holiday teamed up with idol Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong in the film New Orleans. Playing a maid in the movie, Holiday sang "Do You Know What It Means" and "Blues are Brewin'."

But Holiday's skyrocketing career meant little to her. Blind-sided by the death of her mother at age 49, Holiday became more and more depressed and increased her use of drugs and alcohol. During this time, Holiday attempted suicide by jumping from a train.

Beginning of the End

On May 27, 1947, Holiday was arrested after drugs were found in her apartment. A much-hyped trial ensued, and she was convicted of narcotics possession and sentenced to a year and a day in jail. Holiday requested instead to be sent to a federal drug rehabilitation facility in West Virginia.

Holiday obtained an early release in March 1948 because of good behavior. However, because of her convictions, Holiday's cabaret license was yanked, and she was banned from appearing in nightclubs or venues that served alcohol.

But ten days after her parole, Holiday was on the comeback trail -- giving a spectacular performance before a sold-out audience at Carnegie Hall.

On January 22, 1949, Holiday was again arrested at her hotel in Los Angeles for possessing opium -- along with manager John Levy. This drug charge prevented Holiday from giving any kind of performance in New York. However, Holiday was acquitted of all charges on June 3, 1949.

Holiday continued to record and make appearances, but for the next 12 years, her life became more difficult and Holiday slid deeper into alcoholism and drugs.

Lady Sings the Blues

Years of substance abuse began wreaking havoc on Holiday's health. Though adept at hiding physical track marks, her once sublime voice now clearly revealed the poison infusing her veins. Holiday had several close calls with narcotics agents always on her trail, but managed to escape more jail time.

By the 1950s, Holiday had lost her substantial earnings to habits, husbands, and hospitals. She continued to record often, collaborating with Norman Granz's Verve Records once again in 1952.

Holiday toured frequently into the mid-1950s, having a wildly successful tour of Europe in 1954. But her performances and recordings lacked the vitality and skill they once possessed.

Needing money, Holiday collaborated with William Dufty to pen her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, in 1956. The book is a rambling, inaccurate account derived from interviews the author had with a drug-hazed Holiday, who admitted to being in poor form and claimed not to have read the completed book.

Out of Time

Holiday got involved with Louis McKay in 1956, another in a long line of abusive, self-serving men -- using Holiday's money and fame to advance themselves. The pair were married in Mexico in 1957.

Though her voice was now weak, Holiday gave a spectacular performance with friend Lester Young on CBS TV's The Sound of Jazz in 1958, their final act together. Many felt her interpretations in later years were richer.

In 1958, Holiday recorded ethereal "Lady in Satin" for Columbia, backed by Ray Ellis' 40-piece orchestra. Holiday made an appearance on British television in 1959, which proved to be her last performance.

Holiday was taken to New York's Metropolitan Hospital on May 31, 1959, diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and heart disease. As she lay on her deathbed, Holiday's room was raided and she was arrested once again for narcotics possession. She was under police guard until two days before her death.

On July 17, 1959, after being administered the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church, a 44-year-old, wasted Holiday died of heart, kidney, and liver failure -- complicated by alcoholism and drug addiction.

Legacy

Billie Holiday's voice was light and untrained. Her style mysterious, foreboding. Yet, her substantial body of work and artistic expression has provided inspiration to decades of musicians and singers. The technique with which Holiday interpreted and delivered jazz compositions was another genre in itself. 

At her funeral in St. Paul the Apostle, more than 3,000 people turned out to pay final respects to the tragic Lady Day. Musicians who started with Holiday and friends who gave her a start, including Benny Goodman and John Hammond, celebrated her. Holiday was interred in St. Raymond's Cemetery.

Most of the tributes honoring Holiday's contributions were awarded posthumously, including inductions into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame (1979); Blues Hall of Fame (1991); Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2000); Grammy Hall of Fame for God Bless the Child, Strange Fruit, Lover Man, and Lady in Satin.

Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday's autobiography, was made into a 1972 movie starring Diana Ross as Lady Day.

Holiday was posthumously awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on what would have been her 71st birthday, April 7, 1986. She was ranked #6 on VH1's 100 Greatest Women of Rock and Roll.

During her lifetime, Holiday faced great personal difficulties -- poverty, racism, abuse, and abandonment. She was victimized and swindled. Although amassing a fortune during her career, Holiday was robbed by husbands and record companies, and there was only 70 cents in her bank account and a $750 tabloid fee strapped to her leg at the time of her death.