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”
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.
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.
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.
- Billie Holiday is one of several singers photographed by critic and photographer Carl Van Vechten included in the Van Vechten Collection. Browse the Occupational Index to explore more of Van Vechten’s work.
- Holiday is also featured in the William P. Gottlieb Collection, which documents the jazz scene from 1938 to 1948, primarily in New York City and Washington, D.C. Browse the name index to find more photographs of “Lady Day” and other jazz artists. You can also listen to an audio recording of Gottlieb’s commentary on Holiday.
- Search American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940 on the term Apollo for a description of Amateur Night and a spontaneous protest that took place during a live radio broadcast from the famous Harlem theater. In the words of the interviewee, “A Negro show would rather have the plaudits of an Apollo audience than any other applause. For the Apollo is the hard testing ground of Negro show business, and approval there can make or break an act.” Notice the outmoded language used to describe African Americans in this 1938 interview.
- Also, search American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940 on the term jazz for a variety of stories about the beginning of the jazz era.
- Search Today in History on the terms singer or jazz to find more collection material on musical legends, including Jelly Roll Morton, W. C. Handy, Ella Fitzgerald, and George Gershwin.
- Learn more about what life was like for African Americans during Billie Holiday’s lifetime by examining the following collections that cover a range of subjects from Jim Crow to the beginning of the African American Civil Rights Movement.
- African American History Month
- Timeline of African American History, 1852-1880
- Voices of Civil Rights
- The African-American Mosaic
- African-American Odyssey
- From Slavery to Civil Rights: A Timeline of African-American History
- Photographs of Signs Enforcing Racial Discrimination: Documentation by Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Photographers
- African American Photos Assembled for 1900 Paris Exposition
- Themed Resources for Teachers: Civil Rights