Billie Holiday

April 7, 1915 - July 17, 1959—Note this profile is still being updated.
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Billie Holiday, one of the best-known vocalists in the history of jazz, was a singular improviser who innovated the art of song interpretation in her extensive catalogue of recordings. Her deeply emotional and idiosyncratic renditions of jazz standards and original numbers, ranging from “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” to “Good Morning Heartache” to “Strange Fruit,” established Holiday as a fearless trailblazer and an independent woman who refused to assimilate to the social norms of her day. Despite life-long struggles, racism and racial profiling, she continued to produce music until her premature death at 44.

Born Eleonora Fagan Gough in Philadelphia to teenaged parents Clarence Holiday, a jazz banjoist, and Sadie Fagan, the singer grew up in Baltimore. She was shuttled back and forth between various family members, and at 14, she settled in Harlem to live with her mother.

In New York, Holiday pursued work as a dancer but was instead hired as a singer at the popular Harlem nightspot Pod and Jerry’s Log Cabin. At the onset of her musical career, Holiday counted Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong as her first musical influences; she was largely self-taught. In 1933, after working the speakeasy circuit for several years, Holiday was discovered by a young producer named John Hammond who introduced her to collaborators including Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Duke Ellington and Lester Young, and in 1935 she got her first recording contract.

In the late 30s, Holiday performed with big-bands led by Count Basie and Artie Shaw. This second collaboration with Shaw was particularly groundbreaking; Holiday became one of the first Black women to perform with a white orchestra and tour the segregated south.

In 1939, Holiday recorded a song by Abel Meeropol called “Strange Fruit,” after she was introduced to the songwriter by Barney Josephson, manager of Greenwich Village’s Cafe Society Downtown, the first interracial nightclub to open outside of Harlem. Her own label Columbia Records had no desire to produce the track, but Holiday persisted, seeking out Milt Gabler of Commodore Records to aid her project; the song went on to become an anthem of the anti-lynching movement. When U.S. Senate Resolution 39 was passed in 2005–a formal apology for the lynching of a reported 4,742 African-Americans between 1882 and 1968– Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana cited Holiday’s performance as a galvanizing force behind collective activism to end these atrocities; the resolution acknowledges that 99 percent of perpetrators went unprosecuted for these murders.

It was around this same time, concurrent with live performances of “Strange Fruit,” that Holiday became a target of investigation by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. According to journalist Johann Hari, it was an explicitly racist operation led by Commissioner Harry Anslinger, the U.S.’s first drug czar. Anslinger, specifically intent on tracking jazz musicians and advancing a violent anti-drug campaign against them, assigned an agent named Jimmy Fletcher to trail Holiday for years, but it was her abusive husband Louis McKay who informed on her in 1947. Holiday pled guilty to narcotics possession under the false promise that she would be given treatment for her addiction, but instead she was sent to prison for a year in West Virginia. With this mark on her record, she lost her cabaret license and with it the ability to perform in most nightclubs. Philadelphia historians note that after her conviction, Holiday’s birth city became a more meaningful site of employment to the singer; she performed often at venues like the Earle Theatre and the Showboat.

Holiday continued to record and tour Europe throughout the 1950s, publishing her autobiography Lady Sings the Blues in 1956. But her health also steadily declined in those years and she remained vulnerable to the surveillance of narcotics police. In 1959, Holiday was admitted to a Manhattan hospital where she was again harassed by police. Protesters led by Harlem’s Reverend Eugene Callender called for her release and rehabilitation, but these demands went unmet.

Within a month of being admitted to the hospital, Holiday passed away.

She has been posthumously honored many times over since her death. Tributes include induction into New York City’s Apollo Theatre Walk of Fame and Philadelphia’s Music Walk of Fame in 2015, a postage stamp introduced by the U.S. Postal Service in 1994, and four Grammy Awards for Best Historical Album in 1980, 1992, 1994, and 2002. What is obviously most bittersweet about these accolades is that Holiday did not live to see the scope of her influence on generations of artists and fans; however, the systemic injustices that contributed to her death, in many respects, are alive and well.


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