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Holiday, Billie

Holiday, Billie

April 7, 1915
July 17, 1959


The singer Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan, the daughter of Sadie Fagan and jazz guitarist Clarence Holiday. She was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Baltimore, where she endured a traumatic childhood of poverty and abuse. As a teenager, she changed her name (after screen star Billie Dove) and came to New York, where she began singing in speakeasies, influenced, she said, by Louis Armstrong (19011971) and Bessie Smith (1894?1937). In 1933 she was spotted performing in Harlem by the critic and producer John Hammond, who brought her to Columbia Records, where she recorded classic sessions with such jazz greats as pianist Teddy Wilson (19121986) and tenor saxophonist Lester Young (19091959), who gave Holiday her nickname, "Lady Day".

Following grueling tours with the big bands of Count Basie and Artie Shaw, Holiday became a solo act in 1938, achieving success with appearances at Cafe Society in Greenwich Village, and with her 1939 recording of the dramatic antilynching song "Strange Fruit." Performing regularly at intimate clubs along New York's Fifty-second Street, she gained a sizable income and a reputation as a peerless singer of torch songs.

A heroin addict, Holiday was arrested for narcotics possession in 1947 and spent ten months in prison. This made it illegal for her to work in New York clubs. Yet despite such hardships and her deteriorating health and voice, she continued to perform and make memorable, and sometimes challenging, recordings on the Decca, Verve, and Columbia labels until her death in 1959.

Although riddled with inaccuracies, Holiday's 1956 autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, remains a fascinating account of her mercurial personality. A 1972 film of the same title, starring pop singer Diana Ross, further distorted Holiday's life, though it also introduced her to a new generation of listeners. Holiday was one of America's finest and most influential jazz singers. Though her voice was light and had a limited range, her phrasing, in the manner of a jazz instrumentalist, places her among the most consummate of jazz musicians. She was distinguished by her impeccable timing, her ability to transform song melodies through improvisation, and her ability to render lyrics with absolute conviction. While she was not a blues singer, her performances were infused with the same stark depth of feeling that characterizes the blues.

See also Jazz; Jazz Singers; Smith, Bessie

Bibliography

Blackburn, Julia. With Billie. New York: Pantheon, 2005.

Chilton, John. Billie's Blues: The Billie Holiday Story, 19331959. Foreword by Buck Clayton. New York: Da Capo, 1975.

Kliment, Bud. Billie Holiday. New York: Chelsea House, 1990.

O'Meally, Robert. Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday. New York: Arcade, 1991.

bud kliment (1996)
Updated bibliography

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