April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her birth name was Eleanora Fagan.
July 17th, 1959 in New York City
Billie Holiday died penniless after a short and tumultuous life. As singers go, she was not particularly virtuosic. In fact, her range was quite limited, and because of her use of heavy drugs, it was often weak and thin. However, when Holiday sang, she injected herself into her music, singing with such emotional clarity that today she is remembered as a jazz icon.
Born Eleanor Harris, Holiday grew up with her mother, Sarah “Sadie” Harris in Baltimore, Maryland. Sadie didn’t provide care for her daughter, and Holiday was often left to fend for herself. As a result of habitually skipped school, and having been raped at age ten, Holiday spent much of her time in the House of Good Shepard, a facility for troubled black children. In her teens, Holiday took a job as a cleaner in a brothel, where she discovered the music of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. Holiday claimed in her ghost written 1956 autobiography, ‘Lady Sings the Blues’ that she briefly worked as a prostitute, but upon moving to Harlem in New York City with her mother in 1929, she began her singing career.
The Swing Era:
In the early 1930s, Holiday sang for tips in clubs in New York, and it was around this time that she took on her pseudonym. “Billie” was inspired by the actress Billie Dove, and Holiday believed that her father was guitarist Clarence Holiday, although her birth certificate lists “Frank DeVies” as her father. In 1933 producer John Hammond discovered the young singer at a bar called Monette’s. He introduced her to clarinetist Benny Goodman and pianist Teddy Wilson, with whom she performed and recorded during the swing era. This led to performances in big bands led by pianist Count Basie and clarinetist Artie Shaw.
Lady Day and Prez:
Holiday developed a kinship with saxophonist Lester Young, whose melodic improvisation influenced Holiday’s own approach to phrasing and melody. It was Young who nicknamed her “Lady Day,” and she in turn gave him the moniker “Prez.”
In the late 1930s, Holiday set a poem called “Strange Fruit” to music. The poem, by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish teacher and poet in the Bronx, drew attention to the lynching of black men in the South. Holiday’s performance of the song was said to be so heartbreaking that it stayed in her repertoire for the rest of her career. Due to its controversial subject matter, Holiday’s producers at Columbia records refused to record it, but in 1939 Milt Gabler at Commodore Records first documented it.