She was born into a life of incredible hardship and poverty, and despite her success, she never lived long enough to know the full extent of her legacy. Yet it cannot be denied that Billie Holiday was one of the signature voices of jazz, and occasionally the blues. Whether she performed solo or with big bands, few people who heard her sing soon forgot about her afterward.
No less a figure than Frank Sinatra cited her as an influence, even declaring in 1958 that she was “the most important influence on American popular singing in the last 20 years.” So for those of you wondering who this woman is, here are 42 tragic facts about Billie Holiday.
Billie Holiday Facts
42. Early Starts
Holiday was born on April 7, 1915, in the city of Philadelphia. Her father, Clarence Holiday, was only 16 years old at the time and her mother, Sarah Fagan, was 13. Because her parents weren’t married, Holiday was given the name Eleanora Fagan.
41. Going it Alone
Shortly after her birth, Holiday’s father abandoned her and her mother, hoping to make it as a musician. Holiday’s mother, meanwhile, was kicked out of her home by her parents for getting pregnant.
40. Working Mom
Holiday’s mother found support in Baltimore with her half-sister, Eva Miller. Miller and her mother-in-law, Martha, would often be the ones looking after Holiday while her mother found work on passenger railroads.
39. Flower Girl
As a singer, one of Holiday’s trademarks was her habit of wearing white gardenias in her hair. This came to be a defining part of her appearance onstage.
38. Take My Word for It!
Despite her birth certificate listing her place of birth as Philadelphia, Holiday would later claim that she had been born in Baltimore.
37. Breaking Barriers
In 1938, Holiday became one of the first women of color to sing in an orchestra comprised of white people when she began to work with bandleader and clarinetist Artie Shaw. This would, of course, lead to much tension for Holiday, but we’ll get to that later.
36. Fan Tribute?
You might be wondering where Holiday’s stage name originated. While her surname was clearly taken from her father, musician Clarence Holiday, her first name was picked by Holiday in honor of film actress Billie Dove.
35. How it All Began
According to Holiday, her career as a singer began in an act of complete desperation, and even then, it was a backup plan! When she was 16, she and her mother were desperately trying to make some form of living in Harlem when Holiday went into an establishment called the Log Cabin Club. Holiday told the manager, Jerry Preston, that she could dance, but after seeing her audition, Preston turned her down flat.
Holiday quickly replied that she could also sing, whereupon Preston allowed her to try and sing (making him easily the most reasonable guy that anyone’s ever auditioned for). With the piano player providing backup, Holiday sang the songs “Trav’lin’” and “Body and Soul.” According to Holiday, the patrons at the bar began weeping as she sang, which would be a common response to a lot of her music.
34. It’s a Hard Knock Life
According to Holiday herself, she began to work when she was just six years old. This got her, and especially her mother, in trouble with the law, because of Holiday skipping school. In 1925, the nine-year-old Holiday was sent to a Catholic reform school, known as the House of the Good Shepherd, where she stayed for nine months before returning to her mother’s care.
While she was in the care of the reform school, Holiday was baptized into the Catholic faith.
33. Cinderella Story
Despite the charges of truancy and despite the state putting her in a reform school for nine months, Holiday would drop out of school completely when she was just 11 years old. Among her jobs during that time were cleaning homes in her neighborhood, performing tasks such as scrubbing kitchen and bathroom floors. Not even talking mice could lighten that image.
32. It Begins
When Holiday was 17, she caught the attention of music producer John Hammond. He was so impressed with Holiday’s voice that he arranged her first ever record deal. In November 1933, Holiday recorded two songs with Benny Goodman: “Your Mother’s Son-in-Law” and “Riffin’ the Scotch.” The latter song sold more than 5,000 copies, and since this was long before iTunes, that was an impressive feat for a first-time artist with no formal training.
31. All About the Money
In the late 1930s, Holiday signed with John Hammond’s Brunswick Records. During that time, the key element of Holiday’s music was improvisation. Holiday’s ability to adapt the melody on the spot was groundbreaking for the time, and this saved the studio a lot of money. Instead of writing musical arrangements, which proved costly, Holiday and the other musicians would come in and wing it. Unfortunately for Holiday, the studio also made money by paying Holiday a flat fee rate instead of royalties.
30. Accolades Piling Up
In 1979, Holiday was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame. 12 years later, Holiday was also inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
29. A Bad Influence
One of the men who would become intimate with Holiday during her career was fellow musician Joe Guy. Guy would perform alongside Holiday from 1945 to 1946, but at that point, both were also struggling with addiction. Guy would go to Holiday’s film set of New Orleans to provide Holiday with more heroin until he was banned from the set by her manager.
Their relationship ended when both were arrested for possession in 1947.
28. Holiday’s Best Friend
After her arrest, Holiday was sentenced to Alderson Federal Prison Camp, but due to good behavior, she was released in 1948. One amusing anecdote from this incident occurred when Holiday returned to Newark to find that her pianist, Bobby Tucker, had brought along her beloved dog, Mister. According to Holiday herself, Mister was so overjoyed to see her again that he knocked her to the ground and licked at her face.
However, a woman who happened to be in the area was convinced that the dog was attacking Holiday, and her screams brought police running, which in turn led to a small crowd and reporters following up. We can only assume that everyone had a good laugh over that misunderstanding.
27. And That’s How She Wrote
In 1956, Holiday co-wrote her autobiography Lady Sings the Blues with William Dufty. Speaking candidly about the ups and downs of her life, the book has nevertheless been criticized for treating Holiday’s claims as fact despite her occasional inaccuracies. Others have argued that certain stories and facts were suppressed out of risk of legal action at the time.
26. Going to Hollywood (Again)
Holiday’s autobiography was adapted for the screen with the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues. The film starred singer Diana Ross as Holiday, alongside a cast which included Richard Pryor and Billy Dee Williams. While the film was a modest financial success, its soundtrack reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 200 Album Charts.
The film was also nominated for five Academy Awards, including one for Ross.
25. That’s What They Call Me
As well as her stage name, Holiday was also given the nickname “Lady Day” by Lester Young, who worked with Holiday while they played with the orchestra led by Count Basie. The name stuck with her and became known to her fanbase as well over the years.
24. A Taste of the Spotlight
In 1935, a musical short was made by Paramount Pictures titled Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life. The short was partially named after a musical piece by legendary bandleader Duke Ellington, which was also featured in the short. Holiday made her onscreen debut in the short, singing the song “Saddest Tale.”
23. Outrageous Racism
During Holiday’s time touring with Artie Shaw, she became the first black woman to tour the segregated American South alongside a white bandleader. As you can imagine, this led to many incidents, like Holiday not being allowed to sit on the bandstand with her fellow musicians. On other occasions, Holiday was subjected to racial slurs while performing, and made to enter and leave buildings through the kitchen rather than the front door.
Finally, despite the fact that Shaw had tried to stand up for Holiday, he was pressured into hiring a white singer alongside her.
22. Billie & Orson
According to her own autobiography, Holiday had an affair with legendary American director Orson Welles while he was in the middle of filming his equally legendary film Citizen Kane.
21. My Godchildren…
Holiday never had any children in her life, though she did stand as godmother for two of her friends’ children. One was Bevan Dufty, whose father had co-written Holiday’s autobiography, and Billie Lorraine Feather, whose father was British jazz critic Leonard Feather.
20. When Life Gives You Lemons…
In 1942, Holiday released the song “God Bless the Child,” which she had also co-written alongside Arthur Herzog Jr. The origins of the song stemmed from a fierce argument that Holiday had with her mother. Over the years, Holiday had given a great deal of money to her mother, but when she herself was short on funds, her mother refused to help her out.
Reportedly, during the argument, Holiday’s mother shouted, “God bless the child that’s got his own.”
19. The Sopranos Could Have Warned You…
In 1957, Holiday married Louis McKay, who worked an enforcer for the Mafia. Sadly, McKay proved to be abusive towards Holiday, just like many men in her life had been before. They were separated by the time of Holiday’s death.
18. Lady Day and Louie Sitting in a Tree
Holiday only appeared in one feature film during her career, and it was the 1947 film New Orleans. Holiday performed alongside legendary musician Louis Armstrong, and their characters in the film were romantically involved. Unfortunately, the film’s director, Herbert J. Biberman, was blacklisted after the film, during the Hollywood Red Scare.
His work on the film had drawn the ire of racists, who did their best to sabotage his career.
17. The High-Water Mark Year
In the year 1937 alone, Holiday released no fewer than 16 bestselling songs—take that, Drake! Amongst those was “Carelessly,” which was “her sole number one hit as a featured vocalist on the available pop charts of the 1930s.”
16. She was Taller Than I Remember…
In 1985, a statue of Holiday was dedicated to her in the city of Baltimore. Designed by sculptor James Earl Reid, the statue is bronze and stands 8’6” tall, more than three feet taller than Holiday actually was. The dedication was performed by then-Baltimore mayor William Donald Schaefer before a crowd of 200 people.
15. Conditions for Performance
When “Strange Fruit” was added to Holiday’s live repertoire, there were several conditions introduced to go with the song’s performance. For one thing, it would always be the closing number if Holiday sang it. In order to avoid any distractions while Holiday was singing, no waiters would service the patrons in attendance, and no lights would be on except for one focused on Holiday’s face.
Additionally, Holiday wouldn’t stick around for an encore after singing that song.
14. Random Connection
Interestingly, Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” was originally a poem written by Abel Meeropol. This was also the same man who adopted the two sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the infamous couple who were sentenced to death for charges of espionage during the Cold War.
13. Don’t Over-Hype It!
In case you might be wondering just why Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit” is so important, keep in mind that the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry has preserved it as an important piece of American music. Additionally, Time Magazine named it the “song of the century.”
12. Zero Tolerance
Due to her arrest in 1947 for drug possession, Holiday’s New York City Cabaret Card was revoked. This meant that Holiday was unable to perform music anywhere which sold alcohol. This ban continued for the last 12 years of her life.
11. Ahead of Her Time
Believe it or not, Holiday was part of one of the very first reality TV shows in the US. In the 1950s, The Comeback Show featured celebrities telling the stories of how they made it big, no matter how seriously the odds were stacked against them. Holiday was the subject of the third episode in October 1953. To be fair, she certainly deserved to be on a show like that!
10. Do Re Mi? What’s That?
Despite her success as a singer, Holiday never learned how to actually read music, and she was rather limited in her range. Her approach was more instinctive, allowing for a delivery which relied on emotion rather than reaching certain notes. This style was unique at the time and would go on to influence singers long after Holiday’s death.
9. The End
After years of chemical dependency, Holiday was diagnosed with cirrhosis in 1959. By that point, however, she was unable to give up drinking, despite her doctor’s warnings. On May 31, 1959, Holiday took up treatment for liver disease and heart disease at Metropolitan Hospital. She would never leave the hospital, dying on July 17, at the age of 44.
Holiday’s funeral was held in New York City at the St. Paul the Apostle Roman Catholic Church. More than 3,000 people were in attendance to pay their respects.
7. Going into that Obscure Goodnight
Despite Holiday’s success, her obituary in the New York Times didn’t even have a byline. As if that wasn’t bad enough, many of her recordings from the 1930s weren’t even in print at the time of her death.
6. From Rags to Riches to Rags
Despite any success that she might have had, the final years of Holiday’s life saw her being swindled out of her hard-earned fortune. By the time that she died, Holiday had no more than $0.70 in her bank account. Aside from that, the only amount of money that she had was a tabloid fee worth $750, which she was carrying at the time of her stay in the hospital.
5. Family Business?
When Holiday was in her early teens, her mother found employment as a sex worker out of a brothel. In 1929, Holiday herself would join her mother in the oldest profession in the world, all before she was 14 years old. Mother and daughter would be arrested after police raided the brothel in May 1929. Both were released by the end of the year.
4. A Mother’s Worst Nightmare
On December 14, 1926, Holiday’s mother came home from work, only to discover her daughter being assaulted by their neighbor, Wilbur Rich. She was only 11 years old at the time. Rich was arrested for attempting to rape Holiday, and Holiday was brought to the House of the Good Shepherd for the second time in her life.
She was kept there in protective custody as state witness and crime victim until February 1927.
3. “Sunday is Gloomy…”
One of Holiday’s more controversial songs was her 1941 song “Gloomy Sunday,” a song that was translated into English from an original piece by Hungarian composer Rezso Seress. The song has infamously become known as the “Hungarian Suicide Song,” due to the nature of the song’s lyrics and the legend of several people supposedly having been driven to take their own lives after listening to the song.
While the full extent of this legend will never be confirmed (though it’s worth pointing out that the composer himself would die by suicide in 1968), lots of people took the legend seriously. The BBC banned the song from being played over the radio, though this was because they didn’t want a song that depressing being played while the British were fighting in World War II.
Surprisingly, the ban wasn’t lifted until 2002.
2. Awkward Timing, Fellas…
Holiday spent her final moments of life under arrest. While she was in the hospital in 1959, agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics descended upon her. The Bureau had reportedly been focusing on Holiday for nearly 20 years, and as she was dying, she was put under arrest and had a police guard placed upon her room.
1. For the Father I Never Knew
In 1939, Holiday released “Strange Fruit.” Controversial upon its release, the song deals with racism in the United States, and specifically the lynching of black people, which was horrifically common at the time. Holiday was initially worried about violent reprisals against her for singing about the topic, but she was determined to go forward with it in honor of her father, who had died when a hospital refused to treat him for a lung disorder on account of his race.