Billie Holiday, also known as Lady Day, is the undisputed queen of jazz. She was born named Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia on April 7, 1915 to a single mother. Holiday did not have an easy childhood. Her mother often left her in the care of relatives as she went to find work, and Holiday dropped out of school at age 11. Holiday was first introduced to jazz in her early teen years, and would often sing along to records by Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. This would be her only real training in music.
In 1929, Holiday joined her mother in Harlem, which at the time was a hotbed for jazz musicians in particular, and began singing at nightclubs around the neighborhood for tips, either as a soloist or as part of a group. She adopted the name Billie Holiday early in her career. The origins of this name are unclear, though it is generally accepted that she fashioned her name after the movie star Billie Dove and possibly her father, Clarence Holiday.
Holiday eventually paired up with her neighbor, Kenneth Hollan, a tenor saxophonist, and the two of them played nightclubs together from 1929 to 1931. Her reputation as a singer grew and grew, and she began to draw crowds with her name alone. It was also during this time that she reconnected with her father, who was playing in Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra.
Her big break came in 1932, when she was 17. The producer John Hammond heard Holiday, and arranged for her to record a number of songs with Benny Goodman and his band, who were quickly rising to prominence. With Hammond’s record label, Brunswick Records, Holiday recorded “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Miss Brown to You” in 1935, and the two singles became her first hits. She became famous for her improvisation and her ability to transform current pop hits into jazz.
In 1937, Holiday began singing and arranging music with Count Basie, with whom she would record another of her hits, “Summertime.” The two of them were often pitted against Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb, yet the competition only served to make them each more famous. Shortly before leaving Basie in 1939, Holiday was picked up by Artie Shaw, making her the first black woman to work with a white orchestra.
Yet 1939 was her most important year. She was introduced to the poem “Strange Fruit” by Abel Meeropol. She was immediately drawn to it, but was hesitant to perform it, especially since she had generally stuck to upbeat songs beforehand. But after performing it live at Café Society and recording it with Commodore Records, it became an immediate hit. “Strange Fruit” was an instant classic, and brought attention to Holiday like never before.
Holiday would continue to record hit after hit well into the ‘40s, the most popular being “God Bless the Child,” which sold more than a million copies. Her career waned in the ‘50s, mostly due to her dependence on alcohol and drugs. She ended her career with two sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall in 1956. She died in 1959 at the age of 44.
Billie Holiday was not only one of the most popular jazz musicians of the era. She was also one of its most distinctive and celebrated singers. Her raspy voice and heavy diction became synonymous with her name, and her inherent musicality made her an icon of the jazz era.