The gutsy Billie Holiday, fondly remembered as Lady Day, would have been 104 years old come April. Born Eleanora Fagan to a pair of poverty-stricken teenagers, her personal life was plagued with tragedy and scandal from the very start.
AJC SEPIA BLACK HISTORY MONTH | Feb 16, 2019
By Fiza Pirani
This AJC Sepia Black History Month story on Billie Holiday originally ran on Feb 16, 2019. On Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, the luminous Andra Day will step into Holiday’s legacy with “The United States Vs. Billie Holiday,” debuting on Hulu.
The gutsy Billie Holiday, fondly remembered as Lady Day, would have been 104 years old come April. Her discernible voice — sultry, mellow and strikingly melancholy — earned the “Strange Fruit” singer an indelible posthumous legacy.
Born Eleanora Fagan to a pair of poverty-stricken teenagers, her personal life was plagued with tragedy and scandal from the very start.
Her stage name, Billie Holiday, was a tribute to movie star Billie Dove and her father, jazz guitarist Clarence Holiday, who was only 15 when his daughter came into the world on April 7, 1915. Her mom, Sadie Fagan, was 13. The union didn’t last long.
Growing up, Holiday would run errands for a Baltimore brothel in exchange for a chance to listen to jazz icons Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, two legends who inspired her most. But it was ultimately desperation — not desire — that led Holiday to song, according to her obituary in The New York Times.
Upon moving to New York, her mom fell into a debilitating depression and was unable to find work. A teenage Holiday went down to Harlem “looking for any kind of work,” the Times reported.
Both mother and daughter had ultimately turned to prostitution.
Billie Holiday performs at a New York City jazz club in 1947. WILLIAM GOTTLIEB / LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
After a stint in prison for solicitation, Holiday landed her first singing gig at Harlem’s Jerry Preston’s Log Cabin, where the amateur had been turned down as a dancer. For $2 a night, six nights a week, you could hear Holiday serenade audiences with “Trav’lin All Alone” or “Body and Soul.”
In 1933, she entered the studio to sing “Your Mother’s Son-in-Law” with Jack Teagarden, Gene Krupa, Joe Sullivan and Benny Goodman, who had heard of her talents through producer John Hammond.
Her time with the group catapulted her to fame as Lady Day, a nickname later given to her by Count Basie tenor saxophonist Lester Young.
With her head tilted back and white gardenias in her hair, Holiday’s famous 1939 performance at New York’s Café Society introduced the world to two of her most renowned songs, “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit,” the latter of which left witnesses stunned then — and still resonates with many today.
Ahmet Ertegun, the legendary record producer, called the song, which Holiday first sang 16 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus, “a declaration of war … the beginning of the civil rights movement,” Times critic David Margolick wrote in 2000.
Written by Jewish poet Abel Meeropol (pseudonym Lewis Allan), "Strange Fruit" was a protest song about lynching, "the first to shoulder an explicit political message into the arena of entertainment," The Guardian reported in 2011. But "it was not, by any stretch, a song for every occasion. It infected the air in the room, cut conversation stone dead, left drinks untouched, cigarettes unlit. Customers either clapped till their hands were sore, or walked out in disgust."
The biting depiction, further haunted by Holiday’s vulnerable performance and the measured cadence of her finger snaps, came at a time when lynching was on the decline in the country but still common in the South.
When she’d sing “Strange Fruit,” she said she always thought of her father, who died at age 39 after being denied treatment at a “whites only” hospital in Texas, according to her 1956 autobiography, “Lady Sings the Blues.” While touring in the South, she was banned from sitting with white vocalists and was asked to use a hotel’s freight elevator so as not to offend white clientele.
“Political songs legendarily age poorly, yet even with listeners desensitized to ‘Strange Fruit,’ the song has acquired a painful and unwanted freshness in the age of Walter Scott and Eric Garner,” The Atlantic wrote in 2015.
Holiday’s rise to fame in a world still ripe with racism further crumbled with her own growing battle with heroin. She was arrested for a narcotics violation in 1947, a conviction that kept her from retaining the cabaret license required to perform in New York’s nightclubs. Her entanglements with a series of abusive men and inescapable drug and alcohol abuse through the 1950s exacerbated the fall. Self-destruction eventually stole the luster from Holiday’s hardening voice.
Did Billie Holiday?
On July 17, 1959, Holiday was arrested and handcuffed for drug possession as she lay dying of pulmonary edema and heart failure at New York’s Metropolitan Hospital. She was 44 years old. Her last album, “Recording,” was released just four months before her death. At the end of her short life, Holiday had just 70 cents in her bank account, and most of her recordings were out of print.
More than half a century later, you can find them all. With a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Grammy to her name, spots on both the Grammy and the Rock and Roll Halls of Fame and much more acclaim associated with her work, Lady Day’s enduring legacy lives on.
Throughout February, we’ll spotlight different African American pioneers ― through new stories and our archive collection ― in our Living and Metro sections Monday through Sunday. Go to AJC.com/black-history-month for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and to see videos on the African American pioneers featured here each day.