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Billie Holiday
Jazz and Blues
Scott #2856
September 17, 1994 in Greenville, MS
Designed by
Howard Koslow

Eleanora Fagan was born in Baltimore, Maryland on April 7 1915 to Clarence Holiday and Sally Fagan. Clarence was 15 and Sally was only 13. They married when Billie was 3.   

Clarence abandoned the family and Billie's mother left her in the care of relatives who were mostly indifferent to the young child. Billie's early years were spent in extreme poverty. There is evidence of early mental and physical abuse and at the age of 10 she was raped. These traumatic early years contributed heavily to the low self-esteem that Billie experienced throughout the remainder of her life.  

At the age of eleven, Billie was working in a brothel running errands and doing house-cleaning chores. In 1927, she moved to New York City and started working as a prostitute. Billie began singing at small speakeasies and clubs beginning in 1930 or 1931.  Her first big break came in 1933 when John Hammond heard her singing one evening and wrote a column praising her styling and presentation. He also introduced her to Benny Goodman. She began working with Benny and recorded her first song, "Your Mother's Son-In-Law" on November 7, 1933. 

Billie starred  at the Apollo in 1935 and also appeared in a film with Duke Ellington. She toured with the Count Basie Orchestra during 1937 along with Jimmy Rushing. She was fired after only a year because she refused to sing the blue's standards of the times. She began singing with the Artie Shaw Band in 1938, but once again, she left within a year, this time because of objections to her singing style by white promoters and sponsors. 

Billie began singing at the Cafe Society in 1939 and it was here that she recorded her signature song, Strange Fruit written by Lewis Allen. Initially Columbia Records refused to record the song because of fears that it would alienate white record buyers, but eventually she was allowed to record it for their subsidiary company, Commodore Records

Billie produced many hits for Columbia Records including her most famous song in 1941, "God Bless the Child." She began recording for Decca in 1944 and recorded "Taint Nobody's Business If I do," "Them There Eyes," and "Crazy he Calls Me."

Billie married her second husband, Joe Guy in 1943. Billie was already abusing alcohol and marijuana and Joe got her hooked on heroin. Her career began to go downhill from this point on and in 1947 she was imprisoned on drug charges. Billie toured Europe in 1954 and appeared on the CBS special, The Sound of Jazz, with Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young in 1957.

Frank Sinatra paid tribute to Billie in 1958 stating that, "Billie Holiday was the greatest single musical influence on me and the most important influence on American popular singing in the last 20 years.

Billie died on July 17, 1959 of heart and liver disease caused by her drug and alcohol addiction.  In 1972, the movie Lady Sings the Blues was released starring Diana Ross. The movie was  based on her autobiography published by Doubleday. (Billie had wanted to call it "Bitter Crop" after the last line in Strange Fruit.

Strange Fruit

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves
Blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
The scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
for the rain to gather
for the wind to suck
for the sun to rot
for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

Sources: 
Encyclopedia Britannica
Encyclopedia Africana 

 

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