Born Eleanora Fagan, the illegitimate child of Sadie Fagan and Clarence Holiday, in Philadelphia. Both of her parents were still their teens when she was born. Soon after her birth, Sadie Fagan returned to Baltimore’s Fells Point to raise her child alone.
Captions by John D. Murph
Billie’s childhood in Baltimore was rough. She was in and out of the Catholic-run House of Good Shepherd for Colored Girls several times. First in 1925 for constantly playing hooky; then later that year, held under protective custody after being raped on Christmas Eve.
After being released from the House of Good Shepherd in February 1927, Eleanora began running errands and rolling johns at Alice Dean’s bordello and clip joint. There, she listens to Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith (pictured) on the Victrola. Those seminal figures will become two of her most significant influences.
After singing in various dives in Baltimore as an early teenager, Eleanora moves to New York in 1929 to live with her mother, Sadie. The following year, Eleanora changes her name to Billie Holiday, based upon the first name of actress, Billie Dove, and the last name of her estranged father, Clarence Holiday. She began singing in clubs around Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and Harlem.
Record producer and talent scout John Hammond (pictured) discovers Holiday in 1932, singing in Harlem’s Monette Moore’s club. A year later, he produces an 18-year-old Holiday’s first recording with Benny Goodman Orchestra for Columbia Records. She sings “Your Mother’s Son-in-Law.”
Billie meets tenor saxophonist Lester Young (pictured) in March 1935, while he was playing in Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra at the Cotton Club. Billie’s partnership with Lester became legendary with Lester originally nicknaming her “the Duchess” and her mother, “Lady.” But Holiday preferred adopted “Lady” name for herself and nicknamed Lester “Prez.”
Duke Ellington employs Billie Holiday to sing “Big City Blues (Saddest Tale)” in his 1935 Paramount film vignette “Symphony in Black.” She also makes an appearance in the film.
On July 2, 1935, Billie records the first batch of her signature tunes with pianist Teddy Wilson. The songs include chestnuts as “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “These Foolish Things” and “The Way You Look Tonight.”
On Jan. 25, 1937, Billie makes her first recordings with Count Basie Orchestra members: trumpeter Buck Clayton, guitarist Freddy Green, drummer Jo Jones, bassist Walter Page and saxophonist Lester Young. Two months later, she and the Basie band play at the Apollo for one week. Then the following month, she and Basie's band opens up at the Savoy Ballroom.
After several critically acclaimed engagements with Count Basie, Billie joins forces with Artie Shaw on March 9, 1938 in Madison Square Gardens. It was with Shaw that Billie tours the South for the first time. It proved devastating for her being a black woman touring an all-white band as she constantly confronted racism. She left his band in December 1938.
Four months after being a star attraction at Barney Josephson’s Café Society in Greenwich Village, Billie sings the timeless protest song, “Strange Fruit” for the first time in March 1939. Originally a poem, written by Abel Meeropol, the song dealt with the lynching of black men in the South.
On April 20, 1939, Billie began recording for Commodore Records, which marked her prolific middle period. She recorded future classics as “Strange Fruit,” “Billie’s Blues,” “Yesterdays” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” She recorded for Commodore for five years.
Lady Day marries Jimmy Monroe, the brother of Clark Monroe, who owned the Uptown House, on Aug. 25, 1941. The marriage was short- lived as she begins seeing trumpeter Joe Guy, even becoming his common-law wife in 1945 while still wedded to Monroe. She split with both in 1947, and later marries Louis McKay, a mafia enforcer in 1957. He, too, was abusive like her previous two husbands. But it’s noted that McKay was the one who tried to get her off drugs.
On Jan. 18, 1944, Billie Holiday wins Esquire magazine’s award for “Best Vocalist.” She also becomes the first black woman to perform at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House.
On Oct. 4, 1944, Milt Gabler, who owned Commodore Records, signs Lady Day to Decca Records with which she recorded until 1950. With Decca, she recorded more signature classics such as “Don’t Explain,” “Solitude,” “God Bless the Child” and “Good Morning Heartache.”
Billie joins Norman Granz’s (pictured) famous Jazz at Philharmonic Orchestra in Los Angeles on Feb. 2, 1945.
Billie Holiday goes to Los Angeles in September 1946 to perform in the film, New Orleans with her idol, Louis Armstrong. She sings “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” and “Blues are Brewin.’”
On May 27, 1947, Billie is sentenced to a year in the Federal Reformatory for Women in Alderson, W. Va.for possession of narcotics and drugs in her New York apartment. She was released on parole on March 16, 1948, because of good behavior.
After being released from prison and being banned from playing clubs that served liquor, Billie performed at Broadway’s Mansfield Theater and Club Ebony, respectively. She nailed a major comeback on March 27, 1948 at Carnegie Hall, which sold out immediately.
While in San Francisco on Jan. 22, 1949, Billie, along with her manger, John Levy, is busted inside her room at the Mark Twain Hotel for possession of opium. This charge causes her to lose her cabaret card, preventing her from performing in New York City. But on June 3, 1949, she was acquitted.
On Nov. 14, 1952, Holiday joined Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Ahmad Jamal and Stan Getz at Carnegie Hall to celebrate Duke Ellington’s 25th anniversary in the music business.
Doubleday publishing releases Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, in July 1956. The book is ghostwritten by New York Post writer and editor William Duffy and is filled with erroneous accounts of her life.
Sixteen years later, Diana Ross portrays Billie Holiday in the movie, Lady Sings the Blues, earning five Academy nominations, including for Best Actress in a Lead Role.
On Dec. 8, 1957, Billie reunites with Lester Young on The Sound of Jazz. The memorable performance that also included trumpeter Roy Eldridge, baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, and alto saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, was the last time she performed with Lester. It became the greatest jazz performance in television history.
Billie teams up with arranger and conductor Ray Ellis in February 1958 to record her Lady in Satin LP.
Billie gave her last performance on May 25, 1959 at the Phoenix Theater in Greenwich Village.
Drug addiction began to seriously take its toll on Billie Holiday. On May 31, 1959, she was taken to New York’s Metropolitan Hospital after suffering from liver and heart disease. She was arrested for drug possessions while in the hospital, thus causing police to be stationed outside her hospital door. She died of cirrhosis of the liver on July 17, 1959 with only 70 cents in the bank and $750 strapped to her leg. Billie’s funeral was held on July 21, 1959 at New York’s St. Paul the Apostle church.
Fifty years after her death, Billie’s influence continues to loom large, not only in jazz, but also in R&B and pop. Today, her influence can be heard in contemporary artists such as Amy Winehouse, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and Madeleine Peyroux.