Billie Holiday: Biography, Songs & Facts

Instructor: Benjamin Truitt

I have worked in higher education since 2008 when I began teaching in remedial ed and teach classes in Humanities, Philosophy, and Sociology. I have a Bachelors Degree from the University of Colorado at Denver in Philosophy with a minor in Theater and a Masters Degree in Humanities.

Billie Holiday came from a very troubled and rough past, but was able to rise above her start to become one of the world's greatest improvisational singers.

A Troubled, Turbulent Path to Success

Billie Holiday singing
Billie Holiday Singing Photo

'I've been told that nobody sings the word 'hunger' like I do. Or the word 'love'.' - Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday (1915-1959) aka Lady Day is one of the greatest jazz singers of all time. Renowned for her uncanny and soulful ability to improvise melodically and sing every word of a song honestly, Billie Holiday's pure, soothing voice spoke truthfully about the human condition, love, sorrow, and defiance. The person behind the music stands in stark contrast to the beautiful melodies, and Holiday spent a good deal of her life battling the demons of abuse and addiction.

Early Years

Billie Holiday, age 2
Billie Holiday Age 2

Born to a poor family in Baltimore, Maryland, Billie Holiday's real name was Eleanora Fagan. Her father was a guitarist and left her mother early in life. Billie essentially grew up on the streets and she is infamous for having a vocabulary that would make a sailor blush. Her early life wasn't easy, but she knew she could sing, so she moved to New York in her teens. She eventually ended up working in Harlem nightclubs as a singer and she trained herself to be an amazing vocal improviser, or someone who can make up melodies and musical lines on the spot without any planning.

Music, Drugs, and Dogs

Billie Holiday performing in New York
Billie Holiday Performing in New York

In 1933, she got her big break and began working and recording as a singer and artist. One of her earliest songs, 'What a Little Moonlight Can Do,' showcases her vocal range, rhythm and ability. Billie Holiday's ability to make every word she sang sound as though it was spontaneous and personal made her a natural star at her craft. Her joyful on-stage persona hid a troubled individual who compulsively used drugs, was prone to fighting and swearing at others, and indulged her vices to a fault. She was married twice to violent men and quickly separated within a year or two of marriage.

Despite her turbulent personal life, she gained many fans and, just a few years after starting out in Harlem nightclubs, she was working with the biggest names in jazz: Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Artie Shaw, and Lester Young. Her voice had a unique quality of being light, almost fluttering from note to note. She seemed to use her voice like an instrument, and her improvised riffs and melodies are reminiscent of a jazz musician's dizzying trumpet solo.

Billie Holiday rose to prominence in a time when black artists were actively discriminated against and racism overshadowed a large portion of her career. She was approached by socialist teacher Abel Meeropol in 1937 with 'Strange Fruit,' a protest song he had written which spoke to the growing issue of lynching in the south. Protest songs are songs that speak directly to the issue of social change and are usually part of a larger social movement, such as the fight against racism. Billie's rendition of the song brought chilling light and emotional depth to an issue and the song, as performed by Holiday, is considered one of the greatest examples of protest songs.

In 1946, Holiday got her one and only major movie part with her idol, Louis Armstrong. In 'New Orleans,' she was typecast as a maid and many of her scenes were cut from the film. However, she recorded the song 'The Blues are a Brewin' with Armstrong and you can see how genuinely overjoyed the two are to work with one another in the scenes they share. 'New Orleans' marks the high point in Holiday's troubled career.

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