Facts About Billie Holiday

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Billie Holiday rose to stardom in the 1950s due to her soulful voice quality making the song unique and recording it in her own style. Holiday’s career had its ups and down, nevertheless, she remains and considered as one of the greatest jazz singers of all times .

Fact 1:
Born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Billie Holiday was born to Sadie who had her when she was just a teenager while her father was believed to be Clarence Holiday, a jazz musician who did not have a steady presence during her growing years .

Fact 2:
Billie Holiday’s family did not have an easy life. Her great grandmother was a slave on a Virginia plantation and had 16 children with her white Irish plantation owner, Charles Fagan. She herself, as a child, had to scrub marble steps for white people in her neighborhood for five cents .

Fact 3:
On December 24, 1926, eleven-year-old Billie Holiday was left alone in their house when a neighbor named Wilbur Rich broke into her house and raped her. Billie’s mother caught the culprit abusing her daughter and brought the rapist behind bars .

Holiday was sadly raped again at the age of twelve when her mother mistakenly sent her to a brothel. She became a prostitute at the age of thirteen and was sent to jail for four months for refusing sexual advances of a man .

Fact 4:
Billie Holiday’s mother eventually got sick and could not provide anymore for her and Billie’s needs. The situation forced the fifteen-year-old Billie Holiday to work as a singer in a bar called Harlem which started her singing career. The next seventeen years made Billie Holiday as one of the popular singers in New York. She started wearing her long white dress and signature white flower for her hair and called herself “Lady Day” .

Fact 5:
Phil Schaap, curator of Jazz at Lincoln Center described Holiday’s singing as someone who “speaks to your heart, catches your ears, reaches your mind and doing all the mentioned with emotional power which is pure genius. The power of Holiday’s vocals came from the way she sings the melodies, her rhythm and phrasing .

Fact 6:
John Hammond, a jazz enthusiast, who owns a recording company produced Billie Holiday’s first ever record in 1933. In two years time, Holiday became a mainstay on informal jam sessions organized by Hammond and pianist Teddy Wilson with big time bands. Billie Holiday had her first record under her own name after two years. She also did stints with big bands like Count Basie and Artie Shaw, however, singing in a band didn’t suit her personality .

She had her major career break while working with Shaw and his orchestra and became one of the first female African-American lead singer for a white orchestra. She eventually left the orchestra due to controversy on her race and singing style .

Fact 7:
Her song “Strange Fruit” in 1939 catapulted her to fame, however the song became controversial as it exposed American racism and lynching of African American. The song was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1978 and was also included in the list of Song of the Century by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for Arts .

Fact 8:
Billie Holiday’s most popular and covered song “God Bless The Child” was inspired from a fight incident between her mother over money. Billie’s mother started a restaurant business and asked Billy for funds since the business wasn’t doing fine. A time came when Billy ran out of funds and asked for money from her mother but she was denied. In her anger she blurted, “God bless the child that got his own” and ran out.

A few weeks later, she co-wrote the song inspired by the incident and it soon hit #25 in the charts in 1941 .

Fact 9:
Billie Holiday had been successful in her singing career, however her personal life was bittersweet, marred with troubles and tragedy. She grew up in poverty, raped and had to work early in life and even in her adult life (in the 1940’s) she had several arrests due to illegal drug use and underwent drug rehab for a year. In the 1950’s, alcohol and marijuana use had strained her voice making it abnormally deep and often times crack during her performance .

Fact 10:
Billie Holiday’s alcohol and drug abuse along with her abusive relationships with men took a toll on her health. In 1959, Billie was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and was admitted at the New York Metropolitan Hospital for heart and liver disease. In her deathbed, she was placed under arrest for illegal possession of heroine. She died at the age of 44 due to pulmonary damage and heart failure due to liver disease .

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