Billie Holiday was one of the most famous jazz music singers in America. Her real name was Eleanora Fagan. Like most lives of musicians, she had a very bad time growing up which damaged her career. Her life is written about in the autobiography Lady Sings The Blues, but there are many things in there that are not really valid. Her stage name is from an actress, Billie Dove and her father Clarence Holiday.
Billie grew up in the poorest area of Baltimore. Her parents married when she was three years old, but it did not last. They divorced and she was raised by her mother and various relatives. She had been raped when she was eleven years old, and skipped school a lot, so she was placed in The House of the Good Shepherd in 1925. The House of the Good Shepherd was a reform school for Catholics. A friend of the family helped her out of there a couple of years later. She then went to New York to live with her mother. A year later, her mother discovered a neighbor was raping Billie, the man spent three months in jail.
Things seemed to go from bad to worse. Billie had said a brothel claimed her where she worked as a prostitute , and then was in prison for awhile. She started singing for tips in the Harlem night clubs in the 1930’s. It was said when she had not a dime to her name and was about to be evicted, she sang “Trave’lin All Alone” at a club and had the audience crying. She kept singing for tips until she ended up at a popular jazz club called Pod’s and Jerry’s in Harlem. A lot of her performing cannot be discovered, but it is said she was working at Monette’s, another club in 1933 when John Hammond, a talent scout found her.
John got her to record with Benny Goodman that same year. She sang in a group with Teddy Wilson, a pianist. Their debut was the song “Miss Brown You”, and “What A Little Moonlight Can Do”, which made her a famous jazz singer. The year following that, she began recording under her own stage name. Some of the musicians who she performed with her the best, such as Lester young, a tenor sax player. Lester was a boarder in her mother’s house, so they were good friends. He was the one who gave her the nickname Lady Day. She gave him the nickname Prez. She also performed with Artie Shaw and Count Basie.
When Billie was on the Columbia label, someone gave her the song “Strange Fruit” about lynching. She sang the song at a club in 1939, afraid of some kind of retaliation. Later on, Billie said that it was similar to the death of her father, and that is part of the reason why she performed it. She was upset that a lot of people didn’t understand the song. She said,” They’ll ask me to sing that sexy song about the people swinging.” Columbia didn’t record it, but Commodore Records did. She sang that song for twenty years.
She began doing drugs in the 1940’s, married Jimmy Monroe, a trombonist in 1941. At the same time, she was with her drug dealer Joe Guy living with him common law. She divorced her husband in 1947, and departed from her drug dealer, but spent eight months in a correctional facility for women. Because her Cabaret Card was taken, she couldn’t perform in clubs in New York City for the last twelve years of her life, except once at the Ebony Club with permission.
She continued on with substance abuse, and getting into the worst relationships with men.
She died in 1959 from cirrhosis of the liver. She was just 44 years old. All she had was seventy cents in the bank, and a $750 tabloid fee. A movie Lady Sings The Blues was done about her life starring Diana Ross. It wasn’t the real story but it gave Diana a Best Actress nomination. Billie has been an inspiration for many people and is still one of the best jazz music vocalists today.