Billie Holiday

Jazz singer Billie Holiday was born on April 7, 1915, in Baltimore, Maryland. She made her professional singing debut in Harlem nightclubs in 1931 and her first recordings in 1933. Although she had no formal musical training, she became one of the greatest jazz singers of all time; her recordings are now regarded as masterpieces.

Mama may have, Papa may have,
But God bless the child that’s got his own.

Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog, Jr., “God Bless the Child”

[Portrait of Billie Holiday, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Feb. 1947]. William P. Gottlieb, photographer. William P. Gottlieb Collection. Music Division

Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues,1 opens with the line: “Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married; he was 18, she was 16 and I was three.” Holiday’s given name was Eleanora Fagan, but when she started to perform she chose the stage name Billie after Billie Dove, a star in silent, and later sound, movies.

A Terrible Blot on American Civilization. 3424 Lynchings in 33 Years… Washington, 1922. Printed Ephemera: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera. Rare Book & Special Collections Division

The tension of racism was a powerful subtext to Holiday’s life story. Because of Jim Crow laws, still in effect through most of her career, Holiday occasionally found herself in the ironic situation of being the featured vocalist in clubs that refused to serve blacks. The liner notes to Immortal Sessions of Billie Holiday describe her 1939 rendition of Lewis Allan’s “Strange Fruit,” a composition about lynching, as “…the most anguished and harrowing expression of protest against man’s inhumanity to man that has ever been made in the form of vocal jazz.”2

Nicknamed “Lady Day” by musician Lester Young, Holiday often wore white gardenias fastened in her hair when performing. She worked with many jazz greats including Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and, in the film New Orleans, Louis Armstrong and Kid Orey. She appeared at both small clubs and prestigious venues such as Town Hall, Carnegie Hall and the Apollo Theater.

View of the Apollo Theatre Marquee, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948. William P. Gottlieb, photographer. William P. Gottlieb Collection. Music Division

Billie Holiday not only sang but arranged and composed. Her credits in the latter areas include “Don’t Explain,” “Fine and Mellow,” “I Love My Man,” and “God Bless’ the Child.” She died at age forty-four on July 17, 1959 in New York City.

  1. Billie Holiday with William Dufty, Lady Sings the Blues. (Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1956). (Return to text)
  2. Billie Holiday, Immortal Sessions of Billie Holiday, Storyville, SLP 4002. (Return to text)

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