Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday

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Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan; April 7th 1915 - died July 17th 1959)
Billie Holiday was an influential American jazz singer.

Childhood: Billie Holiday was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her parents were Sadie Fagan, a railroad worker, and musician Clarence Holiday and were together only briefly before Clarence left them. Billie stayed with her mother's half sister Eva Miller during her most of her childhood and struggled to cope with her mother's frequent absences. As a result, she often truanted and was forced to face the juvenile court as a young child. She went to The House of the Good Shepherd where she was baptised and looked after for nine months before being reunited with her mother and working alongside her at her East Side Grill restaurant. By 11, Billie had left school behind. Around the same age, she was raped by her neighbour and subsequently placed in the custody of the House of the Good Shepherd. She then took up a job at a brothel doing errands while still with her mother, before her mother once again left her in the care of Eva Miller and her mother-in-law Martha Miller. In her early teens, she became a prostitute alongside her mother in Harlem but both of them were soon briefly sent to prison.

Musical career: Billie Holiday began her singing career singing in clubs in New York, adopting her pseudonym from her father's last name and the actress Billie Dove. She originally performed as a duo with her sax player neighbour Kenneth Hollan. After replacing Monette Moore at one club, she met producer John Hammond who had her record her first two songs - 'Your Mother's Son-In-Law' and 'Riffin' the Scotch' - with Benny Goodman in 1933. In 1935, she appeared in Duke Ellington's short film 'Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life' where she sang 'Saddest Tale'. From 1935 to 1938, Holiday collaborated with Teddy Wilson on various songs including 'What a Little Moonlight Can Do', 'Miss Brown to You' and 'Twenty-Four Hours a Day'. In 1937, she briefly sang for the band Count Basie, singing 'I Must Have That Man', 'I Can't Get Started', and 'Summertime'. During this time she was musical rivals with Ella Fitzgerald. She later left the band for reasons unclear before being hired by Artie Shaw in his predominantly white orchestra. The music eventually hit the radio, though she soon left this band also because of unrelenting racial abuse from her audience. Following all her work with various bands, she became a jazz staple and her 1938 single 'I'm Gonna Lock My Heart' became a major hit. In 1939, she recorded the controversial song 'Strange Fruit' for Commodore Records - a track written about racial lynching. She later said that the track reminded her of how her father was denied life-saving medical treatment because of his colour. During this time, Holiday used to babysit actor Billy Crystal. During some financial struggles in the 30s which her mother refused to help her out with, she wrote a song called 'God Bless the Child' in reference to their argument. The track sold over a million records and became her most popular song. Holiday signed to Decca Records in 1944 after which she recorded 'Lover Man' which brought her more success. She appeared in the movie 'New Orleans' in 1946 alongside Louis Armstrong and Woody Herman. Due to the racial tension in the country, she was forced to play a maid in the movie rather than herself as a jazz singer as she had hoped. For the soundtrack, she recorded the song 'The Blues Are Brewin''. After serving a prison sentence on a drugs charge in 1948, Holiday played a comeback gig at Carnegie Hall during which time she accidentally stuck a hat pin from a bunch of flowers in her head which caused her to bleed and pass out. In 1947, she had her New York City Cabaret Card revoked which meant that she could no longer perform anywhere that served alcoholic beverages. This reduced her earnings though she unlawfully managed to play a gig at the Ebony Club in 1948. In 1956, her autobiography 'Lady Sings the Blues' was written with ghostwriter William Dufty. She later released an accompanying album featuring several of her biggest hits.

Personal life: Billie Holiday married Jimmy Monroe in 1941 during which time she also had a relationship with her drug dealer Joe Guy. She and Monroe divorced in 1947 but she remarried to Louis McKay - who was involved in the Mafia - in 1957. Most of Holiday's relationships were physically abusive. Holiday suffered from drug and alcohol addiction throughout her career and was arrested for possession of drugs in 1947 after which she was sentenced to Alderson Federal Prison Camp before being released early on good behaviour. She was arrested for a second time in 1949 on similar charges. In 1959, she was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver caused by excessive alcohol consumption. She was arrested on her deathbed and died from her disease in May that year.

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10 Black Female Artists Who Shaped Pop Music

Ella Fitzgerald Etta James Lauryn Hill Billie Holiday Aretha Franklin Whitney Houston Chaka Khan

Black culture has without doubt had a monumental influence on the world of pop music since as far back as the 1920s. And while the likes of Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Bob Marley and Michael Jackson have certainly played important roles, today we look at the sometimes overlooked black women who have really proved essential to musical progress.

Ella Fitzgerald (1946) / Photo Credit: William P. GottliebElla Fitzgerald (1946) / Photo Credit: William P. Gottlieb

1. Ma Rainey

Continue reading: 10 Black Female Artists Who Shaped Pop Music

International Jazz Day: Seven Pioneering Singers That Made It On To Our Jazz Playlist

Louis Armstrong Billie Holiday

April 30th marks the celebration of Jazz music worldwide. Originating from the African-American communities of New Orleans, Jazz was a development from blues and ragtime, establishing its own identity in the late 19th century. 

Considered by many as America's classical music, it is recognised as a major form of musical expression and is a widely favoured genre of listening. Depicting love, protesting racism, and the culture of the time, Jazz music as a whole carries some of the most meaningful and thought-provoking messages in music.

Musicians such as Buddy Rich and Herbie Hancock created huge Jazz sounds, but in this feature we will focus on the singers who popularised Jazz with big bands and even bigger voices.

Continue reading: International Jazz Day: Seven Pioneering Singers That Made It On To Our Jazz Playlist

Billie Holiday To Perform At The Apollo Theater... As A Hologram

Billie Holiday

The late jazz singer Billie Holiday is to be brought back to life on the stage via hologram technology. The owners of the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York City, have announced that their venue will play host to the groundbreaking technology later in 2015, and offer similar shows using the technique as an ongoing attraction.

Billie Holiday first sang at the Apollo Theater at the age of just 19, and went on to perform there nearly 30 times subsequently, alongside the likes of jazz greats Count Basie and Duke Ellington. She was inducted into the Apollo’s Walk of Fame in April this year, the centenary year of her birth, 56 years after she died in New York City in 1959 at the age of 44.

The venue announced via its website on Wednesday (September 9th) that it was teaming up with tech innovators at Hologram USA, the same company that was responsible for the brief resurrection of Tupac Shakur at the Coachella Festival in 2012, to deliver the unique shows, hopefully at some point around the Thanksgiving Holiday in November. It also plans to make that technology a permanent instalment, making the Apollo the first venue to do such a thing.

Continue reading: Billie Holiday To Perform At The Apollo Theater... As A Hologram

Billie Holiday

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Billie Holiday

Date of birth

7th April, 1915

Date of death

17th July, 1959