Eleanora Fagan (April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959), known professionally as Billie Holiday, was an American jazz and swing music singer. Nicknamed "Lady Day" by her friend and music partner Lester Young, Holiday had an innovative influence on jazz music and pop singing. Her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo. She was known for her vocal delivery and improvisational skills.
After a turbulent childhood, Holiday began singing in nightclubs in Harlem, where she was heard by producer John Hammond, who liked her voice. She signed a recording contract with Brunswick in 1935. Collaborations with Teddy Wilson produced the hit "What a Little Moonlight Can Do", which became a jazz standard. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Holiday had mainstream success on labels such as Columbia and Decca. By the late 1940s, however, she was beset with legal troubles and drug abuse. After a short prison sentence, she performed at a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall. She was a successful concert performer throughout the 1950s with two further sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall. Because of personal struggles and an altered voice, her final recordings were met with mixed reaction but were mild commercial successes. Her final album, Lady in Satin, was released in 1958. Holiday died of cirrhosis on July 17, 1959 at age 44.
Holiday won four Grammy Awards, all of them posthumously, for Best Historical Album. She was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame. She was also inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, though not in that genre; the website states that "Billie Holiday changed jazz forever". Several films about her life have been released, most recently The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021).
Eleanora Fagan was born on April 7, 1915, in Philadelphia, the daughter of African-American unwed teenage couple Sarah Julia "Sadie" Fagan and Clarence Halliday. Sarah moved to Philadelphia at age 19, after she was evicted from her parents' home in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of Baltimore, Maryland for becoming pregnant. With no support from her parents, she made arrangements with her older, married half-sister, Eva Miller, for Eleanora to stay with her in Baltimore. Not long after Eleanora was born, Clarence abandoned his family to pursue a career as a jazz banjo player and guitarist. Some historians have disputed Holiday's paternity, as a copy of her birth certificate in the Baltimore archives lists her father as "Frank DeViese." Other historians consider this an anomaly, probably inserted by a hospital or government worker. DeViese lived in Philadelphia, and Sadie Harris may have known him through her work. Sadie Harris, then known as Sadie Fagan, married Philip Gough, but the marriage ended in two years.
As a young teenager, Holiday started singing in nightclubs in Harlem. She took her professional pseudonym from Billie Dove, an actress she admired, and Clarence Halliday, her probable father. At the outset of her career, she spelled her last name "Halliday", her father's birth surname, but eventually changed it to "Holiday", his performing name. The young singer teamed up with a neighbor, tenor saxophone player Kenneth Hollan. They were a team from 1929 to 1931, performing at clubs such as the Grey Dawn, Pod's and Jerry's on 133rd Street, and the Brooklyn Elks' Club. Benny Goodman recalled hearing Holiday in 1931 at the Bright Spot. As her reputation grew, she played in many clubs, including the Mexico's and the Alhambra Bar and Grill, where she met Charles Linton, a vocalist who later worked with Chick Webb. It was also during this period that she connected with her father, who was playing in Fletcher Henderson's band.
Late in 1932, 17-year-old Holiday replaced the singer Monette Moore at Covan's, a club on West 132nd Street. Producer John Hammond, who loved Moore's singing and had come to hear her, first heard Holiday there in early 1933. Hammond arranged for Holiday to make her recording debut at age 18, in November 1933, with Benny Goodman. She recorded two songs: "Your Mother's Son-In-Law" and "Riffin' the Scotch", the latter being her first hit. "Son-in-Law" sold 300 copies, and "Riffin' the Scotch", released on November 11, sold 5,000 copies. Hammond was impressed by Holiday's singing style and said of her, "Her singing almost changed my music tastes and my musical life, because she was the first girl singer I'd come across who actually sang like an improvising jazz genius." Hammond compared Holiday favorably to Armstrong and said she had a good sense of lyric content at her young age.
In 1935, Holiday was signed to Brunswick by John Hammond to record pop tunes with pianist Teddy Wilson in the swing style for the growing jukebox trade. They were allowed to improvise on the material. Holiday's improvisation of melody to fit the emotion was revolutionary. Their first collaboration included "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" and "Miss Brown to You". "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" has been deemed her "claim to fame". Brunswick did not favor the recording session because producers wanted Holiday to sound more like Cleo Brown. However, after "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" was successful, the company began considering Holiday an artist in her own right. She began recording under her own name a year later for Vocalion in sessions produced by Hammond and Bernie Hanighen. Hammond said the Wilson-Holiday records from 1935 to 1938 were a great asset to Brunswick. According to Hammond, Brunswick was broke and unable to record many jazz tunes. Wilson, Holiday, Young, and other musicians came into the studio without written arrangements, reducing the recording cost. Brunswick paid Holiday a flat fee rather than royalties, which saved the company money. "I Cried for You" sold 15,000 copies, which Hammond called "a giant hit for Brunswick.... Most records that made money sold around three to four thousand."
In late 1937, Holiday had a brief stint as a big-band vocalist with Count Basie. The traveling conditions of the band were often poor; they performed many one-nighters in clubs, moving from city to city with little stability. Holiday chose the songs she sang and had a hand in the arrangements, choosing to portray her developing persona of a woman unlucky in love. Her tunes included "I Must Have That Man", "Travelin' All Alone", "I Can't Get Started", and "Summertime", a hit for Holiday in 1936, originating in George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess the year before. Basie became used to Holiday's heavy involvement in the band. He said, "When she rehearsed with the band, it was really just a matter of getting her tunes like she wanted them, because she knew how she wanted to sound and you couldn't tell her what to do." Some of the songs Holiday performed with Basie were recorded. "I Can't Get Started", "They Can't Take That Away from Me", and "Swing It Brother Swing" are all commercially available. Holiday was unable to record in the studio with Basie, but she included many of his musicians in her recording sessions with Teddy Wilson.
By February 1938, Holiday was no longer singing for Basie. Various reasons have been given for why she was fired. Jimmy Rushing, Basie's male vocalist, called her unprofessional. According to All Music Guide, Holiday was fired for being "temperamental and unreliable". She complained of low pay and poor working conditions and may have refused to sing the songs requested of her or change her style.
Holiday was in the middle of recording for Columbia in the late 1930s when she was introduced to "Strange Fruit", a song based on a poem about lynching written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx. Meeropol used the pseudonym "Lewis Allan" for the poem, which was set to music and performed at teachers' union meetings. It was eventually heard by Barney Josephson, the proprietor of Café Society, an integrated nightclub in Greenwich Village, who introduced it to Holiday. She performed it at the club in 1939, with some trepidation, fearing possible retaliation. She later said that the imagery of the song reminded her of her father's death and that this played a role in her resistance to performing it.
Holiday was arrested again on January 22, 1949, in her room at the Hotel Mark Twain in San Francisco. Holiday said she began using hard drugs in the early 1940s. She married trombonist Jimmy Monroe on August 25, 1941. While still married, she became involved with trumpeter Joe Guy, her drug dealer. She divorced Monroe in 1947 and also split with Guy. By the 1950s, Holiday's drug use, drinking, and relationships with abusive men caused her health to deteriorate. She appeared on the ABC reality series The Comeback Story to discuss attempts to overcome her misfortunes. Her later recordings showed the effects of declining health on her voice, as it grew coarse and no longer projected its former vibrancy.
By early 1959, Holiday was diagnosed with cirrhosis. Although she had initially stopped drinking on her doctor's orders, it was not long before she relapsed. By May 1959, she had lost 20 pounds (9.1 kg). Her manager Joe Glaser, jazz critic Leonard Feather, photojournalist Allan Morrison, and the singer's own friends all tried in vain to persuade her to go to a hospital. On May 31, 1959, Holiday was taken to Metropolitan Hospital in New York for treatment of liver disease and heart disease. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, under the order of the openly racist Harry J. Anslinger, had been targeting Holiday since at least 1939, when she started to perform "Strange Fruit". She was arrested and handcuffed for drug possession. As she lay dying, her hospital room was raided, and she was placed under police guard. On July 15, she received the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church. She died at age 44, at 3:10 a.m. on July 17, of pulmonary edema and heart failure caused by cirrhosis of the liver.