As an aspiring singer, Lady Day suffered sexual abuse, struggled with a drug habit and encountered racism everywhere she went, but Billie translated all of that pain into some of the most achingly personal songs ever recorded.
Born Eleanora Fagan in 1915, Billie Holiday had a difficult childhood, which greatly affected her life and career. Born to a thirteen year old mother who was kicked out of her parent’s home, mother and child settled in a poor section of Baltimore. At the age of 10, Billie reported being raped. That claim, combined with her frequent truancy, resulted in her being sent to a Catholic reform school, where she remained for two years. Scarred by these experiences, Holiday moved to New York City with her mother, where she was raped the following year by a family friend.
According to Billie Holiday's own account, she was recruited by a brothel, worked as a prostitute in 1930, and was eventually imprisoned for a short time for solicitation. It was in Harlem in the early 1930s that she started singing for tips in various night clubs.
According to legend, penniless and facing eviction, she sang "Travelin All Alone" in a local club and reduced the audience to tears. She later worked at various clubs for tips, and was discovered at the age of twenty by talent scout John Hammond, a well connected jazz writer and producer. Soon after, he reported that she was the greatest singer he had ever heard.
Her bluesy vocal style brought a slow and rough quality to the jazz standards that were often upbeat and light. This combination made for poignant and distinctive renditions of songs that were already standards. By slowing the tone with emotive vocals that reset the timing and rhythm, she added a new dimension to jazz singing.
With Hammond’s support, Holiday spent much of the 1930s working with a range of great jazz musicians, including Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Duke Ellington, Ben Webster, and most importantly, the saxophonist Lester Young. Together, Young and Holiday would create some of the greatest jazz recordings of all time. They were close friends throughout their lives—giving each other their now-famous nicknames of “Lady Day” and the “Prez.” Sympathetic to Holiday’s unique style, Young helped her create music that would best highlight her unconventional talents.
It was not, however, until 1939, with her song “Strange Fruit,” that Holiday found her real audience. A deeply powerful song about lynching, “Strange Fruit” was a revelation in its disturbing and emotional condemnation of racism.
Due to constant racial attacks, Holiday had a difficult time touring and spent much of the 1940s working in New York. While her popularity was growing, Holiday’s personal life remained troubled. Though one of the highest paid performers of the time, much of her income went to pay for her serious drug addictions. Interestingly, and perhaps as a testament to her talent, though she was plagued by health problems, bad relationships, and addiction, Holiday remained an unequaled performer.
By the late 1940s, after the death of her mother, Holiday’s heroin addiction became so bad she was repeatedly arrested— eventually checking herself into an institution in the hopes of breaking her habit. By 1950, the authorities denied her a license to perform in establishments selling alcohol. Though she continued to record and perform afterward, this marked the major turning point in her career.
For the next seven years, Holiday would slip deeper into alcoholism and begin to lose control of her once perfect voice. In 1959, after the death of her good friend Lester Young and with almost nothing to her name, Billie Holiday died at the age of forty-four.
During her lifetime she fought racism and sexism, and in the face of great personal difficulties triumphed through a deep artistic spirit. It is for these reasons that she is considered a change-maker in women's history.