Eleanora Fagan popularly known as Billie Holiday was born on the 7th of April 1915 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Sarah Julia “Sadie” Fagan. Her father, Clarence Holiday, a musician, did not marry or live with her mother; Billie died on the 17th of July 1959, an American jazz singer and songwriter.
Fagan had moved to Philadelphia at the age of nineteen,after being ejected from her parents’ home in Sandtown-Winchester, Baltimore, for becoming pregnant. With no support from her parents, Holiday’s mother arranged for the young Holiday to stay with her older married half sister, Eva Miller, who lived in Baltimore.
She had a difficult childhood. Her mother often took what were then known as “transportation jobs”, serving on passenger railroads. Holiday was left to be raised largely by Eva Miller’s mother-in-law, Martha Miller, and suffered from her mother’s absences and leaving her in others’ care for much of the first ten years of her life.
By early 1929, Holiday joined her mother in Harlem after her release from the House of the Good Shepherd after being in protective custody as a state witness in a rape case, her mother had walked in on a man raping her on the 24th of December 1926.
On May 2, 1929, the house that her mother lived in was raided, and Holiday and her mother were sent to prison for prostitution. After spending some time in a workhouse, her mother was released in July, followed by Holiday in October, at the age of 14.
In 1928, Holiday took a job as a singer at Jerry Preston’s Log Cabin in New York City. She found she had a powerful voice, full of expression, but she was unable to settle to a job and moved from nightclub to nightclub.
Holiday started recording for Columbia and, by 1937, she was producing some of the greatest recordings of her career, with Buck Clayton and Lester Young who nicknamed her ‘Lady Day’.
One of her biggest singles of this period was ‘I cried for you’, which sold 15,000 copies. As Holiday’s career reached new heights, she became more depressed. In 1942, she married James Monroe, but their marriage was violent and abusive.
Holiday became addicted to heroin and opium, and her lifestyle affected her music. The marriage didn’t last, but hot on its heels came a second marriage to trumpeter Joe Guy and a move to heroin.
She lost a good deal of money running her own orchestra with Joe Guy. In 1947 she was arrested for possession of heroin and sentenced to eight months in prison.
She began recording for jazz entrepreneur Norman Granz, owner of the excellent labels Clef, Norgran, and by 1956, Verve. The recordings returned her to the small-group intimacy of her Columbia work, and reunited her with Ben Webster as well as other top-flight musicians such as Oscar Peterson, Harry “Sweets” Edison, and Charlie Shavers.
Holiday toured Europe to great acclamation, and her 1956 autobiography brought her even more fame. She made her last great appearance in 1957, on the CBS television special The Sound of Jazz with Webster, Lester Young, and Coleman Hawkins providing a close backing. She made two more appearances in Europe before collapsing in May 1959 of heart and liver disease.
Still using heroin while on her death bed, Holiday was arrested for possession in her private room and died on July 17, her system completely unable to fight both withdrawal and heart disease at the same time.