Also known as: Eleanora Fagan
The facts of Billie Holiday's early life are uncertain. She was born Eleanora Fagan, probably in Baltimore. There are conflicting reports about whether her thirteen–year–old mother, Sadie Fagan, and fifteen–year–old father, Clarence Holiday, ever married, but if they did, they did not live together for any significant period. Clarence Holiday played guitar and banjo professionally and joined jazz–band leader Fletcher Henderson in the early 1930s, so he was on the road much of the time, and he was not conceivably a family man, in any case. Eleanora had a delinquent adolescence. She was sent to a reformatory at the age of ten and had become a prostitute by the time she was twelve. In Baltimore (or perhaps later) she assumed the first name of her favorite movie star, Billie Dove, and the last name of her father, and practiced to be a singer, taking Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong as models. She moved to New York City with her mother in 1928 or 1929, and together they struggled to make a living during the Depression, working as domestics when they could get no other work. When her father came to town, Billie Holiday confronted him on his jobs, threatening to call him "Daddy" in front of his girlfriends unless he gave her money.
Billie Holiday began singing in New York clubs as a teenager, and by the time she was old enough to drink legally she had established a reputation as a stirring jazz singer. She was a natural talent with excellent musical instincts and an earthy voice that matched the searching honesty of her songs. By the age of eighteen her fans included singer Mildred Bailey; Benny Goodman, with whom she recorded in 1933; and record producer–promoter John Hammond, who observed that "she sang popular songs in a manner that made them completely her own." Her nickname in Harlem was "Lady"; saxophonist Lester Young, an admirer, added the appellation "Day." She was "Lady Day," the hottest singer in Harlem before she was twenty.
The best early Billie Holiday recordings were organized by Hammond with pianist Teddy Wilson. After the success of those sessions, Hammond was devoted to promoting Holiday's career. He arranged for her to appear with the best musicians of the day. By the end of the 1930s she had sung in the bands of Count Basie and Artie Shaw, but life with a big band was too restrictive for her, and in 1938 she became a solo act. In January 1939 she opened at the new Greenwich Village club Cafe Society, where she sang for nine months and performed Abel Meeropol's now classic protest against lynching, "Strange Fruit" for the first time. Holiday was a success, but she was also living her music with disastrous effects. In August 1941 she married Jimmy Monroe, and by the time of their breakup soon afterward, she was an opium user and a heroin addict. She was making one thousand dollars a week in the early 1940s and spending her money on her habit. She was also at the peak of her career. In 1943 she was voted the best jazz vocalist in Esquire magazine readers' poll. With that acknowledgment of her greatness, Decca Records began making a series of thirty–six recordings that are regarded among the finest jazz vocals of the time. "Lover Man," "Porgy," "Now or Never," and a duet with Louis Armstrong on "My Sweet Hunk of Trash" are among those releases that mark the last of the good times for her.
In 1945 Holiday married trumpet player Joe Guy, and together they ran a band that lost large sums of money. Business woes, added to her chronic depression and dependence on drugs, brought her career to an abrupt halt. In 1947 she was arrested on a drug charge and voluntarily accepted placement in a federal drug–rehabilitation center for a year and a day. Ten days after her release she appeared before a packed house at Carnegie Hall, but she was not allowed to play in Manhattan establishments that served alcohol because her cabaret license had been suspended. The years of drinking and the ravages of drug addiction took their toll on her talent as well. Her voice lost its resiliency, and she appeared on stage when she was unable to perform well.
She toured Europe in 1954 and appeared triumphantly at Royal Albert Hall before an audience of six thousand. But increasingly the power of her performances was attributable to the pity the audience felt for a great talent that had destroyed itself, as if her music described a life too terrible to endure. That image was reinforced by her candid autobiography Lady Sings the Blues (1956), which did not hide the embarrassments of her life. In the mid 1950s her marriage to Louis McKay soured, as all her relationships with men did, and she was unable to drag herself from the world of drug abuse. By 1958 she was on her last slide downward. She died on 15 July 1959 in a hospital bed where she had been under house arrest since 12 June for possession of narcotics. She had $750 taped to her leg, an advance from a magazine for a series of articles about her life.
September 30, 2004: Holiday was inducted into the inaugural class of Lincoln Center's Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame. Source: "Jazz At Lincoln Center To Induct Inaugural Class of Musicians into The Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame" (Press Release), September 30, 2004.