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Ten Facts About Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday, a jazz legend, sought to communicate with an audience signing each note as an expression of her own life. 

Billie’s singing conveyed much more, making each song her own with her distinct style. She had a fighting spirit and a voice like no other; she deserved better than what the world delivered her. 

Billie Holiday was a dazzling talent whose early life was blighted by poverty, and whose years of success were marred by drugs, terrible marriages, and institutionalized bigotry.  

Here are 10 facts about Billie Holiday (April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959), the most distinctive voices of all time.

10. From Eleanora Fagan to Billie Holiday

Billie Holding aged 2
Billie Holding aged 2

Billie Holiday, birth name Eleanora Fagan, was the daughter of Clarence Holiday and Sadie Fagan. Her father believed to be a jazz musician and left her mother early in life. 

For a time, she and her mother kept her maternal grandfather’s surname, Fagan, but, in 1920, her mother married a man named Gough, and both she and Eleanora took his surname. 

But the marriage failed a few years later, leaving Holiday and her mother to fend for themselves. She changed her name to Billie Holiday, after Billie Dove, an actress she admired, and Clarence Holiday, her father.

“I don’t think I missed a single picture Billie Dove ever produced,” she writes in her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues.

9. Billie Holiday’s Ascension

An image of Billie Holiday with her dog, Mister
An image of Billie Holiday with her dog, Mister

In 1928 she Moved to New York City with her mother, who worked as a housemaid. In 1932 Billie tried out for a job as a nightclub dancer, but she was turned down for a position as a dancer, so she took up singing instead.

Producer John Hammond discovered the Holiday. She made her debut record as part of a studio ensemble led by clarinetist Benny Goodman, who was on the edge of stardom at the time.

In the 1930s and ’40s, she made her mark on the jazz world through a series of recordings made between 1935 and 1939.

Not only for Billie’s vocals but also the exceptional ensemble and solo work of the accompanying all-star ensembles led by pianist Teddy Wilson, those performances are jazz classics.

In the late 1930s, she was also a prominent band vocalist, first with Count Basie and eventually with Artie Shaw. She was frequently linked with saxophonist Lester Young at the time, who earned her the nickname “Lady Day.”

8. Billie was one of the Trendsetters

Billie Holiday performing
Billie Holiday performing

For a Black woman in the United States at that time, glamor may also be seen as a kind of resistance. Mainstream culture seemed to have an issue with recognizing Black women as successful.

People said, “How else would she wear pearls and fur?” but Holiday dressed like a woman of her status should. She represented herself exactly how she desired, which was revolutionary in and of itself.

She donned a long gown, gloves, and her characteristic gardenia to her Carnegie Hall comeback concert in 1948. Holiday oozed mid-century glamour in everything she wore, from the gowns on stage to the fur coats and ponytails offstage.

When she collaborated with clarinetist, composer, and bandleader Artie Shaw in 1938, she became the first black woman to work with a white orchestra. Another trademark of hers was singing with her head tilted back.

7. Holiday never learned how to read music

Mug Shot of Billie Holiday
Mug Shot of Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday is among the most identifiable voices in music history. She had no formal musical training, yet she developed a very effective singing style with an intuitive knowledge of the musical structure and a vast jazz and blues experience.

Her articulation was heavily reliant on open-ended vowel sounds, which allowed for softer and lengthened phrasing. She had a substantial 4-octave range, but she wasn’t recognized for it, but those well-produced stable mixed tone notes show that it wasn’t because she couldn’t. 

It was because she had made expressiveness her primary goal.

Listening to jazz and blues performers like Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith provided Billie with an escape and a passion for singing.

6. Song of the Century “Strange Fruit.”

Billie Holiday performing her song in Washington
Billie Holiday performing her song in Washington

Strange Fruit is a poem written by Abel Meeropol and performed by Billie Holiday in 1939. The song is a protest song against lynchings of African-Americans, with lyrics comparing the victims to tree fruit.

Several accounts of how Billie first heard the song, but she chose to perform it because the grim imagery reminded her of her father’s death. She was at first hesitant to do it out of fear of retaliation.

She realized how it connected with people and how essential it was once she did. Nonetheless, her producer, John Hammond, hesitated to produce it for fear of the consequences. Eventually, Commodore Records agreed.

Holiday recorded the song twice, once in 1939 and once in 1944. Some radio stations prohibited strange Fruit because it was deemed too controversial, which only added its popularity.

The song was well-liked; the 1939 recording eventually sold a million copies, becoming Holiday’s best-selling single.  

Holiday’s version was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978. It was also named to the Recording Industry Association of America’s and the National Endowment for the Arts’ “Songs of the Century” lists.

5. Legal Issues

She had a tough childhood and had a problematic relationship with her parents. Her mother was a prostitute, and she eventually became a victim of sex trafficking in a brothel.

As an adult, she was arrested and charged many times for her drug addiction.

After a brief marriage with James Monroe in 1941, she developed an opium problem. She developed a heroin addiction after meeting trumpeter Joe Guy. 

In 1945, Holiday was arrested two years later for narcotics possession after her mother’s death as her substance misuse troubles spiraled out of control.

Her ongoing battle with heroin addiction had damaged her voice, but not her skill. Billie had been arrested several times for narcotics violations by the mid-1940s.

After one arrest in 1947, she was imprisoned for a year and a day in a federal rehabilitation center in Alderson, West Virginia, at her request.

Just ten days after being released, she gave a concert at Carnegie Hall, but after that, she was barred by New York City police licensing laws from working in any place that served liquor. In effect, the absence of a showcard meant that she could never again appear in a New York nightclub.

4. Relationships of Holiday

Billie Holiday and her husband Jow Guy
Billie Holiday and her husband Jow Guy

Billie Holiday was romantically involved with several men and women throughout her career. Previously, Billie was married to Louis McKay.

Billie’s friends hoped she’d wind up with someone good, like Henderson or pianist Sonny White, but her next love was Jimmy Monroe, a friend of famous gangster Dutch Schultz. Monroe was a self-professed hustler with a penchant for opium and coke. He quickly passed that on to Billie.

Billie dated Joe Guy, Orson Welles, Greta Garbo, Lester Young, and John Levy. Neither of her husbands—trumpeter Joe Guy nor Louis McKay—appeared capable or willing to save Billie from herself.

By the 1950s, drink and drugs had taken their toll on her voice, which had become unnaturally deep and gritty, occasionally cracking during performances. Carmen McRae had an experience with Billie Holiday.

3. Influences

Billie holiday
Billie holiday

Billie Holiday surmounted hardships to forever redefine jazz and pop music genres with her distinctive approach and interpretation. Her vocal technique, which jazz instrumentalists heavily influenced, pioneered a new approach to phrasing and tempo manipulation.

Her vocal delivery and improvisational abilities were well-known. She was known for her vocal delivery and improvisational skills. Also, she was the first to prove that you could make soft sounds and still have a powerful emotional impact.

She inspired many artists; Frank Sinatra, Andre Day, Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, and Etta James. Billie Holiday was one of Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell’s main musical influences.

Janis loved Billie’s voice, and she once said, “Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday…. They are so subtle; they can milk you with two notes. They can go no farther than from a to b, and they can make you feel like they told you the whole universe…”

2. Death and Legacy

Billie Holiday's funeral
Billie Holiday’s funeral

Billie made her final public appearance on May 25, 1959, at the Phoenix Theatre in New York City. The Holiday was brought to the hospital not long after this incident for heart and liver problems. She died of “congestion of the lungs complicated by heart failure” on July 17, 1959, at Metropolitan Hospital in New York City.

She had been arrested in her hospital bed for illegal narcotics possession for nearly a month at the time of her death. On July 21, 1959, almost 3,000 people attended Lady Day’s funeral at St. Paul the Apostle Roman Catholic Church in Chicago.

The Holiday is regarded as one of the greatest jazz vocalists of all time, and she has influenced many other performers who have followed in her footsteps. Her autobiography was adapted into the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues, starring legendary singer Diana Ross as Holiday, which helped revive interest in Holiday’s recordings.

After her death, Holiday was honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987. On September 18, 1994, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp honoring Holiday.

1. Statue of Billie Holiday

Statue of Billie holiday
Statue of Billie holiday

A statue of Billie Holiday has been built in Billie Holiday Plaza on Pennsylvania Avenue in the Upton district of Baltimore, Maryland, USA.

The Holiday is depicted in a strapless gown with gardenias in her hair and mouth open in the 1,200-pound monument. Baltimore sculptor James Earl Reid made the towering bronze statue of Holiday.

According to the Baltimore Sun, the statue cost $113,000 to create. Her figure in Baltimore is 8-feet-6-inches tall.


Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan; she changed her name to Billie Holiday after her father, Clarence Holiday, and actress Billie Dove who she admired. She became the first black woman to play clarinet in a major U.S. orchestra.

Billie Holiday is widely regarded as one of the most influential jazz vocalists of all time. She had a successful career for many years before succumbing to addiction. She Was imprisoned for a year and a day in federal rehab in 1947 at her request and banned from working in bars that serve liquor in New York City after releasing from prison.

Billie Holiday overcame adversity to forever redefine jazz and pop music genres with her distinctive approach and interpretation.

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