APRIL 7, 1915
Billie Holiday was born in Baltimore and went on to become one of the greatest jazz singers of all time. One critic concluded that her unique voice “changed the art of American pop vocals forever.”
Born Eleanora Fagan, she endured a horrific childhood. At age 9, she was sent to a Catholic reform school. Just months after being returned to her mother, a neighbor tried to rape Eleanora. She fought back, and he was arrested. She remained in protective custody and was released at age 12.
She ran errands in a brothel and earned what money she could scrubbing marble steps of neighborhood homes. During this time, she first heard Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, whose recording of “West End Blues” exposed her to scat-singing. She joined her mother in Harlem and began singing in nightclubs there. By 1931, she was noticed by the likes of Benny Goodman. She made her recording debut with him two years later when she was 18.
Producer John Hammond credited her with changing his musical direction, because she was “an improvising jazz genius.” She became the first Black female singer to work with a white orchestra, and on their tours through the South, some members of the audience heckled her or hurled racial epithets. She eventually left, but continued to rise in the jazz world as other singers began to imitate her style.
Her recording of “Strange Fruit” drew both controversy and popularity. In 1946, she starred opposite Louis Armstrong and Woody Herman in the movie, New Orleans, but racism and McCarthyism interfered, and much of what she did in the film was cut out.
By now, her heroin addiction had begun to interfere with her work. A year later, she was arrested for possession of narcotics. The district attorney asked for her to receive drug treatment. Instead, the judge sent her to a prison camp in West Virginia. Released for good behavior, she returned to play to a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall.
In the years that followed, drug use, alcoholism and abusive relationships continued to take their toll. She died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1959, and The New York Times published only a short obituary on her with no byline.
Diana Ross portrayed her in the 1972 film, “Lady Sings the Blues, introducing her talents to a new generation. Ross won a Golden Globe for that portrayal and received an Oscar nomination. Andra Day portrayed her in the film, “United States Vs. Billie Holiday.” Day won a Golden Globe for Best Actress and received an Academy Award nomination.
Before her death at age 44, Holiday shared advice on singing with Frank Sinatra. “It is Billie Holiday,” he later said, “who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me.”
She has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, the Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Baltimore built a statue to honor her.