Billie Holiday Biography - life, family, childhood, name, death, history, mother, young, information, born, drugs (2024)

Born: April 7, 1915
Baltimore, Maryland
Died: July 17, 1959
New York, New York

African American jazz singer

Billie Holiday was an African American jazz vocalist who perhaps showed the most expression of feeling of any singer in jazz history.

Early life

Billie Holiday was born Eleanora fa*gan on April 7, 1915, in Baltimore, Maryland. (She borrowed the name "Billie" from one of her favorite movie actresses, Billie Dove.) Born to an unwed teenage mother, Sadie fa*gan, Holiday's childhood was one of poverty. Her father, Clarence Holiday (later a jazz guitarist) married Sadie three years later. He never lived with the family, choosing his musical career over them. As a child Billie started working very young, running errands and cleaning a house of prostitution's (a place where sexual acts are traded for money) marble stoop. It was here that she first heard Louis Armstrong (1900–1971) and Bessie Smith (1894–1937) records through the open windows.

New York City

In 1928 Holiday moved to New York City with her mother, who began work as a housemaid, but the 1929 depression (time of low economic conditions with high rates of unemployment) soon left her mother without work. In 1932 Holiday auditioned for a singing job and was hired. For the next few years she sang in Harlem clubs, then her career took off when Benny Goodman (1901–1986) used her on a record. But it was through a series of recordings made between 1935 and 1939 that her international reputation was established. During the late 1930s she was also a big band vocalist, first with Count Basie (1904–1984) in 1937 and then with Artie Shaw (1910–) in 1938.

Holiday's relationship with Basie's star tenor saxophonist Lester Young (1909–1959) is the stuff of legend. They were great musical coworkers and great friends for life. Young named her "Lady Day" (or simply "Lady"), and that title became her jazz world name from the mid-1930s on. She in turn labeled him "Pres" (the "President of Tenor Saxophonists").

Many successful tunes were recorded, interweaving Young's tenor saxophone with Holiday's voice. After the late 1930s they rarely recorded together, but to the end they remained soul mates. Holiday's career reached its peak in the late 1930s. In 1938 she worked a long engagement at Cafe Society. The following year she joined Benny Goodman on a radio broadcast.

Two songs of the period are noteworthy. The first, "Strange Fruit," is a detailed description of a lynching (an unjust killing because of race). Columbia record company considered it too inflammatory (exciting to the senses) and refused to issue it. A small record company, Commodore, finally released it in 1939. It became a big money-maker because of the tune on the record's other side, "Fine and Mellow," a blues song written by Holiday. Another tune always associated with her is "Gloomy Sunday," which spoke of such deep despair (misery) that it was kept off the airwaves for a time.

Billie Holiday Biography - life, family, childhood, name, death, history, mother, young, information, born, drugs (1)

Billie Holiday.
Reproduced by permission of

AP/Wide World Photos


Personal tragedies

By the mid-1940s Holiday had been arrested many times for illegal drug use. After one arrest, at her own request, she was placed in a federal rehabilitation (having to do with recovery from drug or alcohol abuse) center at Alderson, West Virginia, for a year and a day. Just ten days after being released she gave a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Neither Holiday's first husband, Joe Guy, a jazz guitarist who she divorced, or Louis McKay, who survived her, seemed able to save Holiday from herself. By the 1950s alcohol and marijuana had strained her voice, so that it was unnaturally deep and grainy and occasionally cracked during performances. Nevertheless, her singing was sustained by her highly individual style, the familiarity she projected, and her special way with the words of a song.

Holiday made her final public appearance in a concert at the Phoenix Theatre in New York City on May 25, 1959. She died in Metropolitan Hospital in New York City on July 17, 1959, of "congestion of the lungs complicated by heart failure." At the time of her death she had been under arrest in her hospital bed for illegal possession of drugs.

Holiday's early small-group recordings have been rereleased in several boxed sets under the general title Billie Holiday: The Golden Years. Her best later work is to be found in The First Verve Sessions, recorded in 1952 and 1954.

On March 6, 2000, Holiday was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the Early Influences category. That category includes artists whose music predates rock and roll, but who inspired and had a strong effect on rock and roll music.

For More Information

Chilton, John. Billie's Blues. New York: Stein and Day, 1975.

Clarke, Donald. Wishing on the Moon. New York: Viking, 1994.

Holiday, Billie, and William Dufty. Lady Sings the Blues. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956.

Nicholson, Stuart. Billie Holiday. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1995.

O'Meally, Robert G. Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday. NewYork: Arcade Publishers, 1991.

Billie Holiday Biography - life, family, childhood, name, death, history, mother, young, information, born, drugs (2024)


What was Billie Holiday's childhood like? ›

Born Eleanora fa*gan in Baltimore (or some say Philadelphia) in 1915, Holiday's childhood was marred by horrific abuse—despite the best efforts of her beloved mother, Sadie, who was only 13 when she had Holiday. Always a self-starter, Holiday began singing as a child, while cleaning neighbors' homes for money.

What was the young life of Billie Holiday? ›

Holiday (born Eleanora fa*gan Gough) grew up in jazz-soaked Baltimore of the 1920s. In her early teens, the beginning part of her “apprenticeship” was spent singing along with the records of iconoclasts Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. In 1929 Billie's mother Sadie fa*gan moved to New York in search of better jobs.

What was Billie Holiday's birth name? ›

Billie Holiday (born Eleanora fa*gan; April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959) was an American jazz and swing music singer.

What did Billie Holiday's mother do? ›

For the first 10 years of her life, Billie Holiday was cared for mostly by others, because her mother had taken a traveling job with the railroad. Billie frequently skipped school and when she was 9 years old, she was sent to a Catholic “reform” school.

When was Billie Holiday born and died? ›

Billie Holiday (born April 7, 1915, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.—died July 17, 1959, New York City, New York) was an American jazz singer, one of the greatest from the 1930s to the '50s.

How old was Billie Holiday's mom when she was born? ›

He was eighteen, she was seventeen, and I was three.” Szwed explains, “When Billie was born, her mother was nineteen, her father seventeen. They never married . . . She was born not in Baltimore but in Philadelphia. Some questioned her claim of having been raped at age ten.”

How did Billie Holiday get her name? ›

Thus, from seemingly nowhere, a new star was born out of Eleanora fa*gan who had long since changed her name to Billie Holiday – Billie in honor of her favorite actress and Baltimorean Billie Dove and Holiday due to her infatuation with her erratic father and the recognition the name could earn her in Harlem's nightlife ...

How old was Billie Holiday when she died? ›

After years of substance abuse, Holiday's body had grown weary of the abuse and she died from heart failure on July 17, 1959, at age 44.

Who is Billie Holiday for kids? ›

Billie Holiday was an American jazz singer. She is considered by some to be the greatest jazz singer of all time.

Did Billie Holiday have a baby? ›

Billie Holiday - Lady Day had a lot of ups and downs before she died at the age of 44 in 1959, but no children. Instead, her legacy lives on through her timeless music.

Did Billie Holiday have a sister? ›

Where is Billie Holiday's grave? ›

Detailed map of New Saint Raymond's Cemetery in Bronx NY. Holiday's burial site is in the St. Paul section, Row 56, Grave #29. Grave marker of Billie Holiday.

What is Billie Holiday favorite color? ›

Billie was 22 years old at the time. As I mentioned earlier, this article states her favorite colors as being "black, white, and green", but most of what she has in her dressing room that evening strays from this.

Where did Billie Holiday live when she died? ›

Billie Holiday, famed jazz singer, died yesterday in Metropolitan Hospital. Her age was 44. The immediate cause of death was given as congestion of the lungs complicated by heart failure. Miss Holiday had lived at 26 West Eighty-seventh Street.

Did Billie Holiday have a husband? ›

Billie Holiday's Marriage to Louis McKay

In 1957, after their arrests, Holiday and Louis McKay got married in Mexico. She had married several times before, always to abusive men with drug problems, but McKay was the last. He worked as a mob enforcer and was naturally abusive.

What is all about Billie Holiday's family? ›

Billie Holiday was born Eleanora fa*gan on April 7, 1915, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to teenaged unmarried parents, Sarah Julia “Sadie” fa*gan and Clarence Holiday. Not long after Eleanora's birth, Clarence Holiday abandoned his family to pursue a career as a jazz banjo and guitar player.

What did Billie Holiday's dad do for a living? ›

Her father, Clarence Holiday, was a jazz guitarist in Fletcher Henderson's band, a very popular Black band of his day, who shirked the responsibilities of fatherhood in favor of traveling with his band and being a visitor.

What was Billie Holiday's life and legacy? ›

Considered by many to be one of the greatest jazz vocalists of all time, Billie Holiday triumphed over adversity to forever change the genres of jazz and pop music with her unique styling and interpretation. Holiday left employment as a maid to pursue work as a dancer in Harlem nightclubs.


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