The Billie Holiday biography is a sad tale of an enormous talent. Throughout a life filled with drug addiction and heartbreak, Holiday found solace in music, developing her unmistakable sound. In spite of all the troubles present in her biography, Holiday’s musical impact is strong even today. The jazz recordings she made survive as some of the genre's most influential and timeless.
Early Life: There are some conflicting opinions regarding Billie Holiday’s birth. She was born on April 7, 1915 in either Baltimore or Philadelphia. Her birth certificate reportedly reads Elinore Harris, but it’s also possible she was born Elanora Fagan. Holiday spent many of her childhood years in Baltimore with her mother Sadie. Billie’s father, believed to be a musician named Clarence Holiday, didn’t have much presence in her life. When Billie Holiday was a child, she began skipping school and spent some time at a facility for troubled African-American girls when she was nine years old. In the late 1920s, Holiday went to New York City to live with her mother.
Musical Beginnings: At the beginning of the next decade, Holiday adopted her stage name and began singing in clubs around the city. When she was eighteen, a producer discovered her at a jazz club in Harlem. Soon after, she was recording with bandleader Benny Goodman, contributing vocals to the 1934 hit “Riffin’ the Scotch.” The next year, Holiday made several singles with different musicians, including the classic “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.” In 1937, Holiday toured with the Count Basie Orchestra, then worked with Artie Shaw the following year. Though she made history with Shaw, becoming one of the first female African-American singers to work with a white orchestra, she quit due to the frustration of racial prejudice from promoters.
Artistic Development: Now on her own, Holiday began to develop her signature style during an engagement with New York’s Café Society. Two of her most recognizable songs, “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit,” came from this period. The substance abuse present in the Billie Holiday biography also began to appear during this time. Holiday was already a known drinker and she picked up an opium-smoking habit from a brief marriage during the early 1940s.
Substance Abuse and Career Peak: After signing with Decca Records, Holiday had a hit with 1945’s “Lover Man.” That year also marked tragedy for Holiday, when her mother passed away in October. Holiday had already begun to use heroin and she indulged more frequently in drugs and alcohol after her mother’s death. In 1947, Holiday was arrested for narcotics possession and sentenced to jail. She stayed in a federal rehabilitation facility until the next year. Despite her drug problems, Holiday remained popular. She played a sold-out show at Carnegie Hall soon after her release. Holiday continued recording and touring into the 1950s. Even though drugs and alcohol were taking their toll, she co-wrote her autobiography in 1956. Holiday claimed never to have read the book after it was finished. She was arrested for narcotics again that same year and married again in 1957.
Final Days: The last musical performance of the Billie Holiday biography took place in New York on May 25, 1959. Soon after, she was admitted to the hospital. Holiday couldn’t manage to avoid heroin during her stay and she was even arrested for possession while hospitalized. Billie Holiday died from drug-related complications on July 17, 1959.
Posthumous Accolades: Jazz giants Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa were among the 3,000 people who showed up to pay their respects at Holiday’s funeral, reiterating the effect that her music had on the genre. Holiday’s autobiography was made into the 1972 film “Lady Sings the Blues,” which reignited the public’s interest in her music and life. In 2000, Billie Holiday was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
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