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billie holiday

Billie Holiday

b. Eleanora Fagan Gough, 7th April 1915, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

d. 17th July 1959, New York, New York State, U.S.A.

I was three years old at the time of the death of Billie Holiday. Researching this page was a voyage of discovery. I knew the woman was a great singer.

I knew that she descended into the trap that drugs can lure a person into. I even wondered whether she should be sitting comfortably at a site based around soul music?

Well, there seemed many parallels in her life to that of Marvin Gaye. So here we go...

Billie Holiday's turbulant life began in Baltimore, on 7th April, 1915, when she was born Eleanora Fagan Gough.

Her father, Clarence Holiday, was a teenaged jazz guitarist and banjo player later to play in Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra.

He never married her mother, Sadie Fagan, and left while his daughter was still a baby.

Eleanora's mother was also a young teenager at the time, and whether because of inexperience or neglect, often left her daughter with uncaring relatives.

Holiday was sentenced to Catholic reform school at the age of ten, reportedly after she admitted being raped. Though sentenced to stay until she became an adult, a family friend helped get her released after just two years.

With her mother, she moved in 1927, first to New Jersey and soon after to Brooklyn.

In New York, Holiday helped her mother with domestic work, but soon began moonlighting as a prostitute for the additional income.

Her big singing break came in 1933 when a laughable dancing audition at a speakeasy prompted her accompanist to ask her if she could sing.

In fact, Holiday was most likely singing at clubs all over New York City as early as 1930-31.

Whatever the true story, she first gained some publicity in early 1933, when record producer John Hammond only three years older than Holiday herself, and just at the beginning of a legendary career wrote her up in a column for Melody Maker and brought Benny Goodman to one of her performances.

After recording a demo at Columbia Studios, Holiday joined a small group led by Goodman to make her commercial debut on 27th November, 1933 with 'Your Mother's Son-In-Law.'

Though she didn't return to the studio for over a year, Billie Holiday spent 1934 moving up the rungs of the competitive New York bar scene.

By early 1935, she made her debut at the Apollo Theater and appeared in a one-reeler film with Duke Ellington.

During the last half of 1935, Holiday finally entered the studio again and recorded a total of four sessions.

With a pick-up band supervised by pianist Teddy Wilson, she recorded a series of obscure songs straight from the gutters of Tin Pan Alley in other words, the only songs available to an obscure black band during the mid-'30s.

(During the swing era, music publishers kept the best songs strictly in the hands of society orchestras and popular white singers.)

Holiday and various groups (including trumpeter Roy Eldridge, alto Johnny Hodges, and tenors Ben Webster and Chu Berry) lifted flat songs like 'What a Little Moonlight Can Do,' 'Twenty-Four Hours a Day' and 'If You Were Mine'.

The great combo playing and Holiday's increasingly assured vocals made them quite popular on Columbia's discount subsidiaries Brunswick and Vocalion.

During 1936, Holiday toured with groups led by Jimmie Lunceford and Fletcher Henderson, then returned to New York for several more sessions.

In late January 1937, she recorded several numbers with a small group culled from one of Hammond's new discoveries, Count Basie's Orchestra.

Billie HolidayBillie Holiday

Tenor Lester Young, who'd briefly known Billie several years earlier, and trumpeter Buck Clayton were to become especially attached to Holiday.

The three did much of their best recorded work together during the late '30s, and Holiday herself bestowed the nickname Pres on Young, while he dubbed her Lady Day for her elegance.

By the spring of 1937, she began touring with Basie as the female complement to his male singer, Jimmy Rushing.

The association lasted less than a year, however. Though officially she was fired from the band for being temperamental and unreliable, shadowy influences higher up in the publishing world reportedly commanded the action after she refused to begin singing '20s female blues standards.

At least temporarily, the move actually benefited Holiday.

Less than a month after leaving Basie, she was hired by Artie Shaw's popular band. She began singing with the group in 1938, one of the first instances of a black female appearing with a white group.


Despite the continuing support of the entire band, however, show promoters and radio sponsors soon began objecting to Holiday based on her unorthodox singing style almost as much as her race.

Holiday quit the band. Yet again, her judgment proved valuable; the added freedom allowed her to take a gig at a hip new club named Café Society, the first popular nightspot with an inter-racial audience.

There, Billie Holiday learned the song that would catapult her career to a new level, 'Strange Fruit.'

Billie Holiday

The standard, written by Café Society regular Lewis Allen and forever tied to Holiday, is an anguished reprisal of the intense racism still persistent in the South.

Though Holiday initially expressed doubts about adding such a bald, uncompromising song to her repertoire, she pulled it off thanks largely to her powers of nuance and subtlety.

'Strange Fruit' soon became the highlight of her performances. Though John Hammond refused to record it (not for its politics but for its overly steamy imagery), he allowed Holiday a bit of leverage to record for Commodore, the label owned by jazz record-store owner Milt Gabler.

Once released, 'Strange Fruit' was banned by many radio outlets, though the growing jukebox industry (and the inclusion of the excellent 'Fine and Mellow' on the flip) made it a rather large, though controversial, hit.

She continued recording for Columbia labels until 1942, and hit big again with her most famous composition, 1941's 'God Bless the Child.'

Gabler, who also worked A & R for Decca, signed her to the label in 1944 to record 'Lover Man,' a song written especially for her and her third big hit.

Neatly side stepping the musician's union ban that afflicted her former label, Holiday soon became a priority at Decca, earning the right to top-quality material and lavish string sections for her sessions.

She continued recording scattered sessions for Decca during the rest of the '40's, and recorded several of her best-loved songs including Bessie Smith's 'Tain't Nobody's Business If I Do,' 'Them There Eyes,' and 'Crazy He Calls Me.'

Though her artistry was at its peak, Billie Holiday's emotional life began a turbulent period during the mid-'40's.

Already heavily into alcohol and marijuana, she began smoking opium early in the decade with her first husband, Johnnie Monroe.

The marriage didn't last, but hot on its heels came a second marriage to trumpeter Joe Guy and a move to heroin.

Despite her triumphant concert at New York's Town Hall and a small film role as a maid (!) with Louis Armstrong in 1947's New Orleans, she lost a good deal of money running her own orchestra with Joe Guy.

Her mother's death soon after affected her deeply, and in 1947 she was arrested for possession of heroin and sentenced to eight months in prison.

Unfortunately, Holiday's troubles only continued after her release.

The drug charge made it impossible for her to get a cabaret card, so nightclub performances were out of the question.

Plagued by various celebrity hawks from all portions of the underworld (jazz, drugs, song publishing, etc.), she prevailed for Decca until 1950.

Two years later, she began recording for jazz entrepreneur Norman Granz, owner of the excellent labels Clef, Norgran, and by 1956, Verve.

The recordings returned her to the small-group intimacy of her Columbia work, and reunited her with Ben Webster as well as other top-flight musicians such as Oscar Peterson, Harry 'Sweets' Edison, and Charlie Shavers.

Though the ravages of a hard life were beginning to take their toll on her voice, many of Holiday's mid-'50's recordings are just as intense and beautiful as her classic work.

During 1954, Holiday toured Europe to great acclaim, and her 1956 autobiography brought her even more fame (or notoriety).

She made her last great appearance in 1957, on the CBS television special 'The Sound of Jazz' with Webster, Lester Young, and Coleman Hawkins providing a close backing.

One year later, 'the Lady in Satin' LP revealed her, increasingly hoarse voice with the overwrought strings of Ray Ellis.

Billie Holiday

During her final year, she made two more appearances in Europe before collapsing in May 1959 of heart and liver disease.

Still procuring heroin while on her death bed, Holiday was arrested for possession in her private room and died on 17th July, her system completely unable to fight both withdrawal and heart disease at the same time.

It is a testament to this 'trouble woman' that her recordings are still as fresh today as they were nearly 50 years ago.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this page, her life has many parallels with the life of Marvin Gaye, however, on the drugs front, Billie could give Marvin a run for his money at any time!

Billie HolidayBillie Holiday

Real Player


The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Vol. 1... (Columbia 1933)

The Voice of Jazz: The Complete Recordings... (Affinity x 1933)

Billie Holiday (1933-1937) (Classics 1933)

Lady Day (Columbia 1935)

If You Were Mine (Drive Archive 1935)

The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Vol. 2... (Columbia 1936)

God Bless the Child [Columbia] (Columbia 1936)

Don't Explain (Audio Fidelity x 1936)

The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Vol. 3... (Columbia 1936) 

The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Vols. 1-9 (Columbia 1936)

Lover Man: Jazz Archives, Vol. 6 (Jazz Archives 1937)

The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Vol. 4... (Columbia 1937)

The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Vol. 5... (Columbia 1937) 

As Time Goes By [live] (Drive Archive 1937)

The Billie Holiday and Her Orchestra... (Classics 1937)

Miss Brown to You (Magtic  1937)

The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Vol. 6... (Columbia 1938)

The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Vol. 7... (Columbia/Legac 1938)

I'll Be Seeing You (Commodore  1939)

Billie Holiday [Commodore] (Commodore 1939)

Strange Fruit [Atlantic] (Atlantic 1939)

Commodore Master Takes (GRP 1939)

The Complete Commodore Recordings (GRP 1939)

The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Vol. 8... (Columbia/Legac 1939) 

Billie Holiday (1939-1949)

The Commodore Recordings (Mainstream 1939)

Billie Holiday (1939-1940) (Classics 1939)

Control Booth Series, Vol. 1: 1940-1941 (Jazz Unlimited 1940)

The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Vol. 9... (Columbia 1940)

The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Vol. 9... (Columbia/Legac 1940)

Billie Holiday (1948-1959) (Royal)

Control Booth Series, Vol. 2 (Jazz Unlimited 1941)

Billie's Blues [Blue Note] (Blue Note 1942)

Fine & Mellow [Collectables] [live] (Collectables 1944)

Masters of Jazz, Vol. 3 (Storyville 1944)

Story (MCA 1944)

The Billie Holiday Story [Decca] (MGM 1944)

The Complete Decca Recordings (GRP x 1944)

The Complete Original American Decca... (MCA 1944)

The Lady's Decca Days, Vol. 2 (MCA 1944)

The Lady's Decca Days, Vol. 1 (MCA 1944)

The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve... (Polygram x 1945)

Verve Jazz Masters 47: Sings Standards (Verve 1945)

Billie Holiday & Ella Fitzgerald (MCA  1945)

Billie Holiday on Verve (1946-1959) (Verve x 1946)

Lady in Autumn: The Best of the Verve Years (Verve 1946)

Jazz at the Philharmonic [live] (Clef 1946)

Broadcast Performances, Vol. 1 [live] (ESP 1949)

Summer of 1949 (Bandstand 1949)

For a Lady Named Billie (Giants of Jazz 1949)

Favorites (Columbia 1950)

Billie Holiday at Storyville [live] (Black Lion 1951)

The Complete 1951 Storyville Club Sessions [live] (Fresh Sound 1951)

Billie and Stan (Dale 1951)

Billie Holiday, Al Hibbler and the Blues (Imperial 1951)

The Essential Billie Holiday: Songs of Lost... (Verve 1952)

The Billie Holiday Songbook (Verve 1952)

First Verve Sessions (Verve 1952)

Lover Man [Prime Cuts] (Zeta 1952)

Radio & TV Broadcasts 1953-56 [live] (ESP 1953)

An Evening with Billie Holiday (Clef 1953)

Music for Torching (Clef 1955)

Broadcast Performances, Vol. 3 1956-58 [live] (ESP 1956)

Jazz Recital (Clef 1956)

The Lady Sings (Charly 1956)

Velvet Moods (Clef 1956)

A Recital by Billie Holiday (Clef 1956)

Compact Jazz: Billie Holiday (Verve 1956)

Solitude (Clef 1956)

Embraceable You (Verve 1957)

Billie Holiday Sings the Blues (Score 1957)

The Monterey Jazz Festival with Buddy... [live] (Black Hawk 1958)

The Billie Holiday Story [Columbia] (Columbia 1959)

The Essential Billie Holiday [Verve] (Verve 1961)

Lady Love (United Artists 1962)

The Golden Years, Vol. 1 (Columbia 1962)

Rare Live Recordings (RIC 1964)

Billie Holiday [Clef] (Clef 1965)

Once Upon a Time (Mainstream 1965)

Lady (Verve 1966)

The Golden Years, Vol. 2 (Columbia 1966)

Billie Holiday's Greatest Hits (Columbia 1967)

Billie Holiday Original Recordings (Columbia 1973)

A Day in the Life of Billy Holiday (Different 1975)

Lady Day Blues (AJ 1976)

Easy to Remember (ITI 1977)

Giants of Jazz (Time-Life 1980)

The Silver Collection (Verve 1984)

Sound of Jazz (Columbia 1986)

History of the Real Billie Holiday (Verve 1986)

The Billie Holiday Collection (Deja Vu 1988)

Billie Holiday [Sony] (Sony Special 1991)

I Like Jazz: The Essence of Billie Holiday (Columbia 1991)

Billie Holiday, Vol. 2: I Cried for You (Patricia 1991)

Them There Eyes (Royal 1991)

The Early Classics (Pearl Flapper 1992)

Billie's Blues [Bulldog] (Bulldog 1992)

Lover Man [Sound Solutions] (Sound 1992)

Billie's Best (Verve 1992)

Talks & Sings (Quicksilver 1993)

16 Most Requested Songs (Columbia 1993)

Broadcast Performances, Vol. 4 [live] (Esp 1993)

Collection (Castle 1993)

Verve Jazz Masters 12: Billie Holiday (Verve 1994)

First Issue: Great American Songbook (Polygram 1994)

The Man I Love (Pickwick 1994)

Best of Billie Holiday [Tristar] (Tristar 1994)

Long Gone Blues (Tristar 1994)

Billie Holiday Vol. 1 (1933-1947) (RCA Makin' 1994)

Millennium Anthology (Millennium 1994)

Billie Sings, Terence Plays (Columbia 1994)

Jazz 'Round Midnight: Billie Holiday (Polygram 1994)

God Bless the Child [MCA Special Product] (MCA Special 1994)

The Gold Collection [Deja Vu] (Deja Vu 1995)

With Bobby (Black Label 1995)

Billie Sings the Blues (Sandy Hook 1995)

The Billie Holiday Story, Vol. 5: Music for... (Polygram 1995)

Good Morning Heartache (Four Star 1995)

God Bless the Child [Prime Cuts] (Prime Cuts 1995)

Original Historic Recordings (Jazz Archives 1995)

Vol. 9: 1940 (Masters of  1995)

Jazz Portrait (Tristar 1995)

Box Set (Masters of x 1995)

Fine & Mellow [Indigo] (Indigo 1995)

Lady Sings the Blues: Original Sessions... (Accord 1995)

Immortal Lady in Concert [live] (Musketeer 1995)

On the Sentimental Side (Past Perfect 1995)

Carelessly (Smash 1995)

Vol. 10: 1940-1941 (Masters of 1995)

Love Come Back to Me (Drive 1995)

Vol. 3: 1934-1937 (Masters of 1995)

Vol. 4: 1937 (Masters of 1995)

Vol. 1: 1933-1936 (Masters of 1995)

Vol. 2: 1936-1937 (Masters of 1995)

Vol. 5: 1937-1938 (Masters of 1995)

Vol. 6: 1938 (Masters of 1995)

Lady Sings the Blues: The Billie Holiday... (Verve 1995)

Me Myself and I (Jazz Hour 1995)

Greatest Hits [GRP] (GRP 1995)

Greatest Hits [MCA] (GRP 1995)

At Carnegie Hall: The Billie Holiday Story,... [live] (Verve 1995)

Me Myself & I (Eclipse Music 1996)

Love Songs (Sony 1996)

Golden Hits (Intercontinent 1996)

1935-1938 (Fat Boy 1996)

Billie Holiday Love Songs (Sony / Legacy 1996)

God Bless the Child [K-Tel] (K-Tel 1996)

Lady Day's 25 Greatest: 1933-1944 (ASV / Living Era 1996)

Immortal Lady Day, Vol. 1 (Charly Budget 1996)

American Legends # 9: Billie Holiday (Laserlight 1996)

Miss Brown to You 1933-1936 (Jazztory 1996)

Vol. 11: 1941-1942 (Masters of 1996)

40 Great Songs (Musketeer 1996)

Billie's Blues [Leader] (Leader Music 1996)

This Is Jazz, Vol. 15 (Sony 1996)

Billie's Blues [Collector's Edition/Magnum] (Magnum 1996)

Billie's Blues [Master Series] (Master Series 1996)

Fine & Mellow [Collector/Magnum] (Collector's 1996)

1940-1942 (Classics 1996)

Her Best Recordings: 1935-1942 (Best of Jazz 1996)

1944 (Classics 1996)

Jazz After Dark: Great Songs (Public Music 1996)

Jazz After Dark: Great Songs (Public Music 1996)

Love Me or Leave Me (Hallmark 1996)

Complete, Vol. 12: 1942-1944 (Masters of 1997)

Priceless Jazz Collection (GRP 1997)

Vol. 1: 1935-1939 (L'art Vocal 1997)

Billie Holiday: Members Edition (United Audio 1997)

Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 (Galaxy 1997)

Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 (Galaxy 1997)

Ain't Nobody's Business (Century Vista 1997)

The Ultimate Billie Holiday (Polygram 1997)

Revue Collection (Revue 1997)

Classic Decade (Prism 1998)

This Is Jazz, Vol. 32: Standards (Sony 1998)

Vol. 13: 1944 (Masters of 1998)

Selection of Billie Holiday (Golden Sounds 1998)

V Disc: A Musical Contribution by America's... (Collectors' 1998)

More Priceless Jazz (GRP 1998)

Night & Day (Empress 1998)

Billie's Blues [Wolf] (Wolf 1998

Quintessential 1, 2 & 3 (Sony x 1998)

Gold Collection [Retro] (Retro Music 1998)

Portrait of Billie Holiday (Gallerie 1998)

Gold Collection [Fine Tune] (Fine Tune 1998)

Lady Day & Prez (Giants of Jazz 1998)

Greatest Hits [Sony] (Columbia / Legac 1998)

Golden Classics (Double Play 1998)

Back 2 Back (Intercontinent 1998)

Masters [Cleopatra] (Cleopatra 1998)

Lady Sings the Blues [Entertainers] (Entertainers 1998)

Vol. 14: 1944-1945 (Masters Of 1999)

Guilty (Nostalgia 1999)

Back to Back (Ember 1999)

Wishing on the Moon (ASV / Living Era 1999)

1945-1948 (Classics 1999)

The Essential Billie Holiday (Charly 1999)

Strange Fruit [Crown Collection] (Crown 1999)

Forever Gold (St. Clair 1999)

Strange Fruit [Giants of Jazz] (Giants of Jazz 1999)

Best of Billie Holiday: 1935-1948 (Import 1999)

Cocktail Hour (Columbia River 1999)

Essential Masters of Jazz (Proper 1999)

Strange Fruit [Jazz World] (Jazz World 1999)

Lover Man: 1939-1944 (Jazzterdays 1999)

The Best of Billie Holiday [Intersound] (Intersound 2000)

Lady Sings The Blues (Collectables 2000)

20 Classic Tracks (Cleopatra 2000)

Billie's Love Songs (Nimbus 2000)

Jazz & Blues (Blues & Jazz 2000)

1949-1950 Radio & TV Broadcast [live] (Calibre 2000)

1953-1956 Radio & TV Broadcast [live] (Calibre 2000)

Legends: Billie Holiday (Orchard 2000)

The Great Festival  (2000)

Golden Legends (2000)

High Profile (Direct Source 2000)

A Fine Romance, Vol. 1 (Definitive 2000)

A Fine Romance, Vol. 2 (Definitive 2000)

Anthology: 1944-1959 (Cleopatra 2000)

Strange Fruit: 1937-1939 (Jazzterdays 2000)

That's Life I Guess: 1936-1937 (Jazzterdays 2000)

Billie Holiday the Legend (Legend 2000)

Vol.16: December 1946-December 1948 (Masters Of 2000)

Lady Day [Golden Stars] (Golden Stars x 2000)

New Orleans (Definitive 2000)

Ken Burns Jazz (Verve 2000)

Jazz Gallery: 1925-1950 (Mondo Musica 2000)

Strange Fruit: Alternate Takes (Universal 2000)

Very Best of Billie Holiday (Universal 2000)

Summertime (Mastersound 2000)

1925-1950 (2000)

Anthology 1944-1959 [Japan Bonus Tracks] (Crown Japan 2001)

Great Ladies on V-Disc, Vol. 1 (Import 2001)

Celebrating the Best of Jazz (Direct Source 2001)

The Great, Vol. 2 (Goldies 2001)

The Best of Billie Holiday [EMI-Capitol... (EMI-Capitol 2001)

Billie's Blues [Simply the Best] (Simply The 2001)

Jazz After Hours (2001)

Original Authentic Recordings (Just Jazz 2001)

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