Black Women Who Slayed History: Billie Holiday

This Black History Month, we’re highlighting the black woman who helped make our world what it is today. Today, we honor jazz singer Billie Holiday.

Billie Holiday was born in Philadelphia in 1915 as Eleanora Fagan to her then teenage mother. Her dad is believed to be iconic jazz player Clarence Holiday, so it’s only logical that Billie would go on to become another one of the best as well.

Most of her childhood was was spent in Baltimore, Maryland. She had a very unstable childhood. Her father was out of the picture for most of it, and her mom got married and divorced frequently.

When she was 9 in 1925, Billie started skipping school and eventually got caught. She was sent to a home for troubled African American girls and was one of the youngest girls there. After a few months in the home, she was able to go back to her mother. That wasn’t for long though because in 1926, she was sexually assaulted and sent back to the home.

A few years later, Billie had moved to New York City with her mother. She started finding the comfort in music while she was working in a prostitution house, and soon started calling herself Billie when she would perform in local clubs in Harlem. She chose the name after the actress Billie Dove.

READ MORE: Black Women Who Slayed History: Janet Mock

Some of her early and most impactful influences were Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, who also played the same club circuit in New York at the time. When she was 18, she was discovered in a Harlem jazz club by a producer of the name John Hammond. He loved her melancholic sound and immediately set her up with another musician named Benny Goodman.

With Goodman, Billie recorded her first couple of tracks. One of which, called “Riffin’ the Scotch,” became a top 10 hit in 1934.

She made several records in the following years, and then in 1937, she met Lester Young who was a part of an orchestra in New Jersey. Billie and Lester became really close friends and she eventually toured with the orchestra. Later, she went on to become the first female African American artist to work with an orchestra that was all white, but ended up having to leave them out of the record because so many people had problems with it.

In the next couple of years, Billie established her personal style and look. She was notorious for wearing gardenias in her hair and singing with her head tilted up while performing.

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One of her most iconic songs, “Strange Fruit” came out in 1939 and caused quite a stir. Because it addressed the problem of lynching in the South, many radio stations banned it. It’s legacy is still recognized today. Kanye West even sampled it on his 2013 track “Blood On the Leaves.”

Then in 1941, she married James Monroe. Billie already had a problem with drinking, and he had an opium problem. She soon started using too and eventually, they divorced.

In 1944, while dating trumpet player Joe Guy, she started using heroin. The next year, her mom died which only made things worse for Billie. Then in 1947 after filming a movie with Louis Armstrong, she was arrested for narcotics possession and sentenced the jail time and rehab.

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The conviction took a toll on her career. It made it hard for her to perform in certain venues, and she struggled overcoming the issues surrounding that. She kept touring, however and had a massively successful European tour in 1956.

She published an autobiography in the same year called “Lady Sings the Blues.” Around the same time, she was involved with Louis McKay who started using her to advance his own career. The two got married in Mexico the same year and were promptly arrested for narcotics charges as well even though she got off on them.

Then in 1958, she recorded her last, and most widely regarded, record called “Lady in Satin” with the Ray Ellis orchestra. Her voice is noticeably rougher and huskier than her first records due to the drinking and drug use.

She was admitted to the hospital shortly after her last performance in New York. While in the hospital, she was arrested for heroin possession because she was so addicted. Then when Billie was 44 in 1959, she died of complications from heart failure due to her drinking and drug issues.

Her legacy lives on as one of the most influential jazz singers of all time.

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