black women

The amazing, tragic and intriguing life of the great Billie Holiday

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Born on April 17, 1915 Eleanor Fagan’s spent most of her life battling abuse, addiction and racial prejudice before an untimely death at age 44. Her father, a jazz musician, abandoned the family when she was a young girl and she was often left in the care of abusive relatives while her mother was working. At age 10 she was raped and sent to a reformatory for allegedly seducing her attacker.

Shortly after her release, she turned to prostitution and was arrested when she was just a teen. During this time, she became acquainted with jazz listening to it on the bravos phonograph. In the early 1930’s, she began singing in Harlem nightclubs she adopted to the stage name Billie Holiday, a combination of Billie Duff a popular film star from the 1920’s and her father’s surname.

Before long she was performing with some of the biggest name in Jazz. Saxophonist Lester Young nicknamed her Lady Day for her sophistication and grace and song. Though she had no formal training and her voice was rough and limited in range, it was poniente, expressive and displayed a unique phrasing.

Robert G. O’Meally:             Billie Holiday is somebody that is important to the world of music because she synthesize the style of almost everybody who comes before her. And then there’s almost nobody on the planet who wants to be a singer after her example has been broadcast who isn’t watching Billie Holiday star procuses for what to do.

In a largely segregated time chart-topping hits were reserved for white performers, Billie’s first recordings were little more than second rate songs intended specifically for black artists. She turned them into master pieces considered by many as some of her finest. After her 1937 tour with Count Basie, she joined Artie Shaw’s group becoming one of the first black performers featured in all white band. Fed up with the discrimination she constantly encountered while touring, Billie returned to New York. She set up her base of operations at the Cafe Society an interracial club. She began performing her landmark hit “Strange fruit” a haunting song about southern lynching’s.

Robert G. O’Meally: She’s also significant to the world of music because of sound like Strange fruit. Strange fruit in particular as a singer who dared to take all of those gifts as she had, all of that musicality and subtlety, an understatement and say “did you know that I was mad as hell about the lynching of my people in this country”?

Already abusing alcohol and marijuana, it didn’t take long for Billie to move on to stronger drugs like opium and heroin.   Several relationships with abusive lovers made matters worse, they enabled her drug use and spent her money. Her problems were culminated in 1947 which she was arrested for drug possession and jailed for eight months and her cabaret license was revoked. Unable to perform in bars or night clubs, Billie returned to the recording studio. Her voice growing weaker under continued stress. Plagued by drug dependency, Billie’s condition deteriorated and she faced more run ends with the law.