Billie at 100: Remembering Lady Day
Born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1915, Holiday grew up in Baltimore, Maryland and received her informal musical education by listening to records by jazz icons such as Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. When her mother relocated the family to Harlem in 1929, Holiday made her singing debut in nightclubs and speakeasies under a stage name— Billie Holiday— inspired by silent film star Billie Dove.
John Hammond, a Vanderbilt heir and record producer with a passion for African American music, spotted Holiday at Covan’s nightclub in 1933. Impressed by Holiday’s vibrant voice, he introduced her to clarinetist Benny Goodman, who hired her to sing alongside his band. Holiday had her first hit with “Riffin’ the Scotch,” and in 1935 she recorded “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” which earned her a recording contract of her own and became a seminal song in the American jazz canon.
In 1936, Holiday began recording with tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who dubbed her “Lady Day.” Together they recorded classics such as “The Man I Love” and “Easy Livin’.” Their remarkable partnership shaped the sounds of the era, with Young’s lighthearted swing style faultlessly complementing Holiday’s soft, romantic voice.
Holiday’s career flourished and she became known for her unique ability to reshape melodies and tones; her emotive voice breathed new life into old songs and harmonized impeccably with the best instrumentalists of her time. In 1937, she recorded a string of records and toured with Count Basie and Artie Shaw, becoming one of the first African American women to perform with a white orchestra. Her collaborations with these notable musicians became American jazz standards, and her widespread popularity put her in competition with jazz superstars like Ella Fitzgerald.
In the late 1930s, Holiday forged onward as a solo musician and developed her trademark stage persona— wearing white gardenias in her hair and singing with her head tilted back. While recording for Columbia, she was introduced to “Strange Fruit,” Abel Meeropol’s powerful poem about the lynching of African Americans. Columbia refused to record her musical adaptation of the poem due to its controversial subject matter, so Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit” for Commodore Records. The song became one of Holiday’s classics, and prompted her to pursue the emotional ballads that became her signature.
From 1952 to 1959, Holiday recorded over 100 titles with Verve Records and began touring in Europe. Having become one of the biggest names in jazz, Holiday cemented her legacy with two sold-out performances at Carnegie Hall— a major accomplishment for an African American artist during the segregated period of American history.
Holiday passed away at age 44 in New York City, and over 3,000 people attended her funeral at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle. A true musical phenomenon, Holiday is remembered for her indelible contributions to American music, and her masterpieces continue to inspire vocalists worldwide. Join us in celebrating one of the greatest jazz voices of all time with the playlist below.