Bille Holiday

Posted: 2014/01/18 in Stories


Birth information: Billie Holiday’s birth name is Eleanora Fagan Gough. She was born April 7, 1915 in Baltimore, Maryland to her unwed parents. Her mother was 13-year-old Sadie Fagan, and her father, 15-year-old Clarence Holiday; they married when Billie was three. She changed her name to Billie Holiday because of her admiration of movie star Billie Dove. Billie Holiday was also known as Lady Day.

Occupation: Jazz singer. As a young teenager Billie Holiday began singing career by singing along with records by Bessie Smith or Louis Armstrong in after-hours jazz clubs. When she was 13 years of age, Billie moved to New York City when her mother left Baltimore in search of a better job.

Favorite flower: Gardenia. According to the Human Flower Project, Billie initially wore a gardenia because she was having a tremendously bad hair day. She was at a club, getting ready for a performance, when she seriously burned her hair with a curling iron. Sylvia Syms (“the world’s greatest saloon singer”) knew a club down the street where the coat check girls sold flowers. Sylvia must have been a kind and quick thinking woman. She went to that club and purchased a large, white gardenia for Billie to wear. Billie pinned it over the burned section of her hair and took the stage. Billie ended up liking the look very much and continued to wear gardenias in her hair. It became her signature look.

Favorite animal: Dog. Lady Day had many dogs, both large and tiny, but her favorite was Mister, a boxer who accompanied her almost everywhere.

Billie Holiday is captivating because she never underwent any technical training and she did not know how to read music. Even with these disadvantages she was able to quickly become an active participant in the vibrant jazz scenes of our country at the time. At the age of 18 she was spotted by record producer John Hammond who cut her first record. In 1935 her career was catapulted when she recorded four sides that went on to become hits, including “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Miss Brown to You”. This landed her a recording contract and she recorded a number of master tracks that would ultimately become an important building block of early American jazz music.

What makes Billie Holiday an extraordinary hero to me is that she overcame the challenge of a poverty stricken childhood and the segregation barrier of her time with her music which touched the lives of many people no matter their race. She proved that with effort anyone can succeed.

She risked her career to record “Strange Fruit”, a haunting song about lynching in America, which led to her continued advocacy against racial violence and social equality throughout her lifetime. “Strange Fruit” has been called the original protest song. At a time when political protest was not often expressed in musical form, the song depicted lynching in all of its brutality. The three short verses are very powerful for their ironic language. The side-by-side description of a beautiful landscape with the scene of lynching, the smell of magnolias with that of burning flesh, the blossoms more typically associated with the Southern climate with the “strange fruit” produced by racial oppression hereby creating an imagery of the essence of racism.

Like many other famous musicians, tragedy struck her through the use of drugs and alcohol which landed her in prison for a year and ended her life in New York City on July 17, 1959 at the young age of 44.
She posthumously received the Grammy’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987. The United States Postal Service commemorated her groundbreaking African American musical career with a stamp in 1994. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.


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