Billie Holiday is considered one of the greatest jazz singers of all time. Her inimitable phrasing – singing slightly behind the beat – gave her songs an air of wistfulness that was purely instinctive, for she had no training or technical knowledge.
Born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia, she was raised in Baltimore and New York City, calling herself “Billie” after the film star Billie Dove and “Holiday” after her father, Clarence Holiday, a top jazz guitarist. She first heard jazz recordings of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith when she was working in a brothel. Having escaped from there, she worked as a singer in various Harlem nightclubs until she was discovered by the legendary record producer John Hammond, who introduced her in 1933 to Benny Goodman, with whose band she made her first recordings.
Between 1935 and 1942 Holiday made over 100 records with various small jazz groups, mostly featuring the pianist Teddy Wilson. She also sang with the Count Basie Orchestra (1937) and Artie Shaw's band (1938), and made recordings with the saxophonist Lester Young. By the end of the 1930s she had become a big star, and she turned to solo cabaret work from 1940. In the 1940s she appeared in several films, including New Orleans (1947) with Louis Armstrong. In 1946 she gave her first solo concert in New York's Town Hall.
In spite of her success as a singer, Holiday's personal life was unhappy. Her early poverty and exposure to racial discrimination were followed by a brief marriage to the trumpeter Joe Guy. By 1947 she was hopelessly addicted to heroin, which led to periods in hospital and spells of imprisonment on narcotics charges. Nevertheless, she appeared on television in The Sound of Jazz (1957) and toured Europe in the 1950s; her ghosted autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues (1956), was also the title of a biographical film (1973) starring Diana Ross.
Eventually Holiday succumbed to her addiction; she was admitted to hospital in New York and arrested on her deathbed for the possession of narcotics – a charge widely believed to be false.
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