The Life of Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday, probably the singularly most popular jazz vocalist of all time, was plagued by tragedy her entire life. Her grandfather was one of 17 children of a black Virginia slave impregnated by the white Irish plantation owner. When born in Baltimore, MD, Billie’s parents were only teenagers; her mother (Sally Fagan) the tender age of 13. Billie’s real name was Eleanora Fagan. Shortly after birth, Billie’s father (Clarence Holiday) ran off to go on tour and play guitar with Fletcher Henderson’s band. Billie’s mother often left her to be cared for by relatives. Billie’s early relationship with immediate family was virtually non-existent. Billie essentially grew up alone, feeling unloved and gaining a lifelong inferiority complex that led to her taking great risks with her personal life and becoming self-destructive. At the age of 6, Billie was blamed for her grandmother’s untimely death. At the age of ten, Billie was the victim of a violent rape. The future “Lady Day”first heard the music of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith on a Victrola at Alice Dean’s, the Baltimore brothel where she ran errands and scrubbed floors as a young girl.
In 1927, Billie moved to New York and became a prostitute herself for a span of three years. Inspired by the love of singing, she talked the manager of an obscure Harlem nightclub into letting her sing a few tunes with the house band. She made $57 dollars that night in tips. After being discovered by John Hammond, Eleanora Fagan assumed the stage name of Billie Holiday after her favorite film star Billie Dove, and the name stuck. In 193 3, Hammond organized herfirst recording session with Benny Goodman. Although these recordings were not all that successful, it was the start of her career. Two years later she was teamed with a pickup band led by a pianist named Teddy Wilson and the combination clicked. During 1935-42 she would make some of the finest recordings of her career as word was spreadi…


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