Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Eleanora Fagan, "Billie Holiday" (1915-1959)
MSA SC 3520-14917

Biography:

Billie Holiday was a woman who lived life with vigor, creativity, audacity and passion. She painted masterpieces with her voice—a voice so colorful and expressive that, many times, it brought people to tears. To this day her art it lives on in her invaluable recordings and is rich with palpable, dramatic, lived experience.1 She was an honest singer, known for putting her very essence into any song she even said once, “‘Anything I sing, it’s a part of my life.”2  She emoted so much into, not only her legendary music, but into every aspect of her life. Born in the slums of early 20th century Baltimore, she found beauty beyond her unvarying poverty in the form of jazz which spoke to her soul at a young age. It inspired in her a passion that allowed her creativity to blossom and fostered her rise from a mischievous street kid to one of the greatest jazz singers who ever lived. Not without flaws, Ms. Holiday is an inspiration to young women who have vices, but still believe in pursuing their dream.

Born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915 to two very young parents, Ms. Holiday encountered struggle her entire life.3  Her mother, Sadie Fagan, was only teenager when she was expelled from her family home after they learned she was pregnant.4 Her father, Clarence Holiday, was a jazz guitarist in Fletcher Henderson’s band, a very popular Black band of his day, who shirked the responsibilities of fatherhood in favor of traveling with his band and being a visitor.5  She spent her first 12 years in Baltimore living in various places with her mother in extreme poverty.6  To say she had a hard youth would be an understatement. Young Eleanora suffered from a lack of guidance from her constantly working mother and intense feelings of abandonment from her father who showed temporary love to her only when he was in town.7 To cope with these feelings, she found refuge in the music of the day. Her favorite artist was Bessie Smith, a great blues singer in her right, and as a kid Eleanora would try to mimic her singing style. A family friend, William Hill, recalls that she would sing, “Whatever songs were around that time. She had a nice voice. Maybe she’d be upstairs cleaning or in the bathroom”.8  Living in the slums of Baltimore did not diminish her creativity, but rather added to her experience, which allowed her to become known as one of the great poignant singers of her time. In 1928 her mother moved the two of them to Harlem in New York City and although she had never had any formal training, by the time she left Baltimore she had already received an important part of her self-taught musical education through the mimicking the voices on the radio and infusing her own passion into a piece.9

In Harlem, Eleanora Fagan was exposed to a life of jazz in a much more magnified way than in Baltimore. At first, the flashing lights of fame and stardom sidetracked the teenager and she fell into some bad habits, but with a new goal in mind, of becoming a singer, she refocused herself.10 In NYC she reunited with her father, Clarence Holiday, who lived in New York and was a big man around the nightlife scene she was eager to bust into. He would shuttle the teenager around to different venues to let her see performances and introduce her to his musician friends.11 Hanging out around the jazz scene of Harlem encouraged her to try for her dreams and she got a number of gigs before landing her first regular spot singing blues at the popular Pod and Jerry’s Log Cabin.12 She was only 15 at the time. Thus, from seemingly nowhere, a new star was born out of Eleanora Fagan who had long since changed her name to Billie Holiday – Billie in honor of her favorite actress and Baltimorean Billie Dove and Holiday due to her infatuation with her erratic father and the recognition the name could earn her in Harlem’s nightlife.13

Her jobs began multiplying in Harlem’s jazz and blues scene and, despite formal training, the young girl managed to snag coveted spots that older, better trained artists desired. By sheer passion and will Billie Holiday threw herself out on stages around the city, taking chances and dreaming big of becoming as beloved as her idol Ms. Bessie Smith. This paid off well when she got her big break one night in 1933 when a young Yale dropout and millionaire, John Hammond entered Monette’s in Harlem looking to start-up a new act and heard Billie Holiday singing “Would’ja for a Big Red Apple”.14 According to a friend of his there was something very striking about her, something besides her voice that set her apart from others, “She was a tall, self-assured girl with rich golden-brown skin, exquisitely shown off” and according to others she had something of her idol, Bessie Smith’s “downright bodaciousness”.15An exquisite voice, self-assured demeanor, and striking appearance all helped Ms. Holiday get noticed, but in the end it was her palpable passion for sharing her voice that led to John Hammond’s signing a contract with her. Under Hammond’s guidance, the 18 year old Billie Holiday recorded her first studio record, “Your Mother’s Son-In-Law”, with Benny Goodman’s group later on that same year.

In order to fully understand Ms. Holiday, her very unique voice needs to be highlighted—a voice that embodies the creative manipulation of human sound and untrained audacity in its eccentricity. The 30s and 40s are considered the peak years of her singing career. Young and full of vigor, not jaded yet by fame and fortune, Billie Holiday put her all into the simplest of songs through her magnificently quirky voice. According to record producer, Milt Gabler, “ ‘She got inside of a song’”.16 Indeed he was not the only one who thought this, her voice alone was so strangely unique that it is often compared to a horn.17She was known to listen closely to the horn players and try to make her voice as instrumental as possible, once saying, “I don’t think I’m singing. I feel like I am playing a horn.”18Many acknowledge that she sounded like a female version Louis Armstrong, who was one of her inspirations and collaborators.19 Not only was her timbre unique, but her sense of rhythm was unmatched by any; it allowed her to be one of the only singers around at her time who could sing a popular staple and make it sound like something that was written specifically for her. By being creative and taking liberties with different aspects of music, the untrained songstress has one of the most copied styles of rhythmic phrasing of music history. For an untrained singer, many of the musicians she worked with attested to her unfailing rhythmic sense, how she could slow down her words, or make them bitingly staccato pouring her own emotion into them.20She brought to each performance her own interpretation, based on her cultural heritage, background and experiences and her unique personality.21At the height of her popularity a New York Times critic stated, “Miss Holiday had…a rich and flexible voice that gave the pieces recorded…an emotional intensity that are paralleled in jazz only in the very best of Bessie Smith’s work”.22 This was a praise which was, likely, of the highest degree to Ms. Holiday who mentioned her adoration of Smith at every turn. Her nerve in staying true to her unique style and ignore the initial complaints of critics have cemented her as a musical genius despite lack of proper training.

The gifted, young woman with the painfully expressive voice was introduced to the world at large in the 30s under the guidance of John Hammond. Due to the systematic racism of the day she did not have an easy break, but she always made the best of a bad situation. Her recorded singles and popularity on the New York night scene grew gradually and she was already fairly well known before she was out of her teens. This was a feat considering she got second-rate material since white artists were given priority. Yet, she made the simple songs she sung the best possible versions she could possible make and they succeeded in making her fame grow, not just within the confines of New York City, but the rest of the country as well.23 Another issue was that many clubs and bars around town would not let her even occupy a table or chair in the vicinity because she was Black. For instance, in 1935 once, when she was singing at the Famous Door, she was forced to sit outside of the restroom area in between songs—she wasn’t allowed near the bar or any club tables—a humiliating experience for any person.24 Despite blatant racism, Ms. Holiday continued to perform and succeed. In 1936 she recorded with Count Basie’s Orchestra, where she met her best friend, jazz saxophonist, Lester Young. Together with the legendary Basie, she recorded some of her greatest hits. This was her first instance of working with a big band and she couldn’t have chosen a better band at the time than his. They toured together from 1937-1938 and had a number of memorable hits together.25  Keeping busy, in 1938 the songstress joined Artie Shaw’s band marking a historical milestone; this was the first time that an African American female vocalist had ever performed with a white band.26 Everyone did not appreciate this integration, though. In the South, especially, she encountered intense hatred in the form of racial epithets and threats of violence, yet Artie Shaw and other friends famous such as Bob Hope and Clark Gable stood up for her every chance they could.27 However, the stress of traveling, fighting for venues and relentless discrimination caused her to quit Artie Shaw’s band in 1939 after only a year of touring.28

Inner turmoil plagued Billie Holiday during the next period of her life, but she was never before more popular and her singing was never better. By 1939 she was getting the kind of acclaim after only six years, which many only receive in twenty years into the business. She was friends with some of the biggest names of the day: Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte and Tallulah Bankhead just to name a few and was the toast of the New York jazz scene, having earned the nicknames “Lady” and “Lady Day” by best buddy, Lester Young.29  However, the taunts and images of injustice, violence and bigotry she encountered while touring the South, led her to courageously to create her signature masterpiece, “Strange Fruit” from a poem written by a New York schoolteacher, Lewis Allen.30  “Strange Fruit” was a song about the Southern lynching of Blacks and was revelatory in nature to the whites of New York. She premiered the song at the upscale Café Society in 1939 and oftentimes she would be in tears and stay in an emotional state for some time afterward because of the remembrances the song brings up.31  In 1942 she sang “God Bless the Child”, a song she wrote on her own which speaks of her poverty-stricken youth and independent nature, it became her first self-written hit.32

The rest of the 40s were marked with hits and misses, ups and downs for the still vibrant young singer. She remained in New York, singing and getting booked frequently, but her mother’s death and turbulent personal relationships caused her to slip back deeper into the troubles of her youth. The 1950s continued in this way. In New York, she was greatly limited in performance establishments. Yet, in 1954 she went on a highly successful tour of Europe where she was amazingly popular there.33 In 1956 she was back in New York and had a number of sold out concerts at Carnegie Hall. Sadly the Carnegie Hall performances were her last few with the final being in the first months of 1959.34 The stresses of life finally took their toll on her and she died in New York’s Metropolitan Hospital on July 17, 1959 at the young age of 44.35 Her funeral over-crowed the streets of New York with over 2500 people showing up and some 500+ who waited outside just to get a glimpse of her casket.36

In death, her courageous life seems amazing given the large number of setbacks she faced from childhood to womanhood. Lady Day was a woman who lived life passionately and vibrantly. She did not allow less than ideal beginnings to discourage her and opened the door for so many young girls who believe they can not escape their humble beginnings. Her creativity and uniqueness live on in the music which, though at first regarded skeptically, is now considered American standards for up and coming jazz artists. Her wit and courage, although not learned in a school, speak of a wise soul, unhampered by the arrogance of academia. Accumulating experiences and reflecting those things sometimes tragically sad or sometimes inspiringly uplifting made Lady’s music so accessible to everyone; her experiences resonate universally within the lives of people who dream big.

Ms. Holiday was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 2011.

Footnotes
1. O’Meally, Robert. Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday.  New York: Arcade Publishing, 1991. p. 11. Return to text
2. Ibid. Return to text
3. Mattingly, Carolyn. 2008 Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame Nomination Form. Maryland Commission for Women. Return to text
4.O’Meally, Robert. Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday.  New York: Arcade Publishing, 1991. p. 64. Return to text
5. “Billie Holiday” .  American Masters. Public Broadcasting Company. 12 August 2008. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/print/holiday_b.html> Return to text
6. Ibid. Return to text
7. O’Meally, Robert. Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday.  New York: Arcade Publishing, 1991. p. 72. Return to text
8. Ibid, 67. Return to text
9. Kaufman, Bruce. “Billie Holiday lived a hard life” Tribune-Star. 15 July 2008. Return to text
10. O’Meally, Robert. Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday.  New York: Arcade Publishing, 1991. p.72. Return to text
11. Ibid, 103. Return to text
12. “Billie Holiday” . American Masters. Public Broadcasting Company. 12 August 2008. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/print/holiday_b.html> Return to text
13. Ibid, 73. Return to text
14. O’Meally, Robert. Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday.  New York: Arcade Publishing, 1991. p. 55. Return to text
15. Ibid, 55,59. Return to text
16. Ibid, 43. Return to text
17. Whalen, D.L. PhD Thesis, “A Sociological and Ethnomusicological Study of Billie Holiday and her Music”. University of Pittsburgh, December 1999. p. 251. Return to text
18. Ibid, 240. Return to text
19. O’Meally, Robert. Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday.  New York: Arcade Publishing, 1991. p. 42. Return to text
20.  Ibid, 255. Return to text
21. Ibid, 239. Return to text
22. Wilson, John S. “Billie Holiday—Jazz Singer, Pure and Simple” New York Times. 6 July 1958. Return to text
23. Mattingly, Carolyn. 2008 Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame Nomination Form. Maryland Commission for Women. Return to text
24. Whalen, D.L. PhD Thesis, “A Sociological and Ethnomusicological Study of Billie Holiday and her Music”. University of Pittsburgh, December 1999. p. 243. Return to text
25. Mattingly, Carolyn. 2008 Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame Nomination Form. Maryland Commission for Women. Return to text
26. Ibid. Return to text
27. Millstein, Gilbert. “Troubled Song”. New York Times. 15 July 1956. Return to text
28. Ibid. Return to text
29. AP. “Charity Ward Death Ends Trials of Billie Holiday, Blues Singer” July 17, 1959. The Washington Post and Times Herald. Return to text
30. “Billie Holiday” .  American Masters. Public Broadcasting Company. 12 August 2008. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/print/holiday_b.html> Return to text
31. O’Meally, Robert. Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday.  New York: Arcade Publishing, 1991. p. 139. Return to text
32. Mattingly, Carolyn. 2008 Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame Nomination Form. Maryland Commission for Women. Return to text
33. Kaufman, Bruce. “Billie Holiday lived a hard life” Tribune-Star. 15 July 2008. Return to text
34. Ibid. Return to text
35. AP. “Charity Ward Death Ends Trials of Billie Holiday, Blues Singer” July 17, 1959. The Washington Post and Times Herald. Return to text
36. AP. “2500 Attend Rites for Billie Holiday” July 21 1959. The Washington Post and Times Herald. Return to text
 
 

Biography written by 2008 summer intern Shannon Shird

Return to Eleanora Fagan's Introductory Page
 
 
 
 


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