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The Legendary Billie Holiday

Updated on August 30, 2014

Eleanora Fagan AKA Billie Holiday

Born Eleanora Fagan, Billie Holiday was a songwriter and singer of African American jazz. Lester Young, her musical partner and friend gave her the nickname Lady Day as she had quite an influence on pop singing and jazz. Her style vocally was inspired by instrumentalists and jazz and became a pioneer of a new method of manipulating tempo and phrasing. John Bush, the critic, stated that she altered the pop vocal American art forever.

Eleanora Fagan

Born in Philadelphia,Pennsylvania as Eleanora Fagan to her musician father Clarence Holiday and to her mother. She became pregnant and was rejected from the home of her parents at the age of 19 she had to make arrangements to live with Eva Miller, her older half sister who was married. Having had a difficult childhood, her mom took her often to serve railroad passengers and other jobs in transportation. She was left to others to care for her for the first ten years of her life and this caused her to suffer.

Early Career

In various Harlem night clubs she began singing and took Billie Dove as her pseudonym. She teamed up with Kenneth Hollan, a sax player and tenor and they sang as a team at clubs including the Brooklyn Elk’s Club, Pod’s and Jerry’s and Grey Dawn. With her growing reputation, she played at the Alhambra Bar and Grill and Mexico’s. She was discovered while playing in one of the jazz clubs in Harlem by john Hammond. She worked with Benny Goodman, bandleader, a clarinet player. Your Mother’s Son in Law was her first release commercially.

Known for phrasing distinctively and her melancholy, expressive voice, she went on to record with Teddy Wilson, jazz pianist and made singles including Miss Brown to you and What a Little Moonlight Can Do.

Later Holiday struck out by herself performing at the Café Society of New York. She developed some of her stage persona trademarks at this point singing with her head tilted back and wearing gardenias in her hair. At this time, she debuted the songs Strange Fruit and God Bless the Child. As the years went by, she sang many tunes about relationships that were stormy including My Man and T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do. These songs reflected her romances personally which were usually abusive and destructive


In the year nineteen forty-one she married James Monroe and picked up her new husband’s opium smoking habit. Though this marriage did not continue, her habit of abusing substances did. In the year nineteen forty-four, she signed with Decca Records and scored with Lover Man, which became a hit. At the time Joe Guy, a trumpet player was her boyfriend and she began using heroin with him. She also escalated to using drugs and heavily drinking to ease her grief when her mother died.

Still a Major Star

Despite all her problems personally she was still a big star in the world of jazz and pop music. She appeared in 1947 with Louis Armstrong her idol in the New Orleans film.

Narcotic Possession and Demise

She was convicted in nineteen forty seven of narcotic possession and after rehab, could only play in concert halls and not clubs or cabarets. In nineteen fifty-nine she had met her demise from drug related and alcohol complications.


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