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Billie Holiday
(Portrait of Billie Holiday and Mister, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., ca. Feb. 1947) (LOC) (5020400274) (cropped).jpg
Holiday with her dog, Mister c. 1947
Eleanora Fagan

(1915-04-07)April 7, 1915
Died July 17, 1959(1959-07-17) (aged 44)
Resting place Saint Raymond's Cemetery
Other names Lady Day
Occupation Singer
Years active c. 1930–1959
Jimmy Monroe
(m. 1941; div. 1947)

Joe Guy
(m. 1951; div. 1957)

Louis McKay
(m. 1957)
Musical career
Associated acts
Billie Holiday signature.svg

Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan; April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959) was an American jazz and swing music singer. Holiday had an innovative influence on jazz music and pop singing. She was known for her vocal delivery and improvisational skills.


Eleanora Fagan was born on April 7, 1915, in Philadelphia to African American unwed teenage couple Clarence Halliday and Sarah Julia "Sadie" Fagan. Not long after Eleanora was born, Clarence abandoned his family to pursue a career as a jazz banjo player and guitarist.

Billie Holiday 1917
Holiday, aged two, in 1917

Eleanora grew up in Baltimore and had a very difficult childhood. Her mother often took what were then known as "transportation jobs", serving on passenger railroads. Eleanora lived in her aunt's house (her mother's married half-sister, Eva Miller) and was raised largely by her aunt's mother-in-law, Martha Miller. The girl suffered from her mother's absences and being in others' care for her first decade of life.

After attending kindergarten at St. Frances Academy, she frequently skipped school. When she was nine years old, she was brought before the juvenile court on January 5, 1925. She was sent to the House of the Good Shepherd, a Catholic reform school for African-American girls. After nine months, she was "paroled" on October 3, 1925, to her mother. Sadie had opened a restaurant, the East Side Grill, and mother and daughter worked long hours there. She dropped out of school at age 11.

At 12, she earned a living scrubbing marble steps as well as kitchen and bathroom floors of neighborhood homes. Around this time, she first heard the records of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. By the end of 1928, Holiday's mother moved to Harlem, New York, again leaving Eleanora with Martha Miller.

By early 1929, Holiday had joined her mother in Harlem.

Career outline

After a turbulent childhood, Holiday began singing in nightclubs in Harlem, where she was heard by producer John Hammond, who liked her voice.

She took her professional pseudonym from Billie Dove, an actress she admired, and Clarence Halliday, whom she believed to be her father. At the outset of her career, she spelled her last name "Halliday", her father's birth surname, but eventually changed it to "Holiday".

She signed a recording contract with Brunswick in 1935. Collaborations with Teddy Wilson produced the hit "What a Little Moonlight Can Do", which became a jazz standard.

Holiday had 16 best-selling songs in 1937, making the year her most commercially successful. It was in this year that Holiday scored her sole number one hit as a featured vocalist on the available pop charts of the 1930s, "Carelessly". The hit "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm", was also recorded by Ray Noble, Glen Gray and Fred Astaire, whose rendering was a bestseller for weeks. Holiday's version ranked 6 on the year-end single chart available for 1937.

In February 1938, Holiday was hired by Artie Shaw and became one of the first black women to work with a white orchestra. That was unusual at that time. This was also the first time a black female singer employed full-time toured the segregated U.S. South with a white bandleader. In situations where there was a lot of racial tension, Shaw was known to stick up for his vocalist. In her autobiography, Holiday describes an incident in which she was not permitted to sit on the bandstand with other vocalists because she was black. Shaw said to her, "I want you on the band stand like Helen Forrest, Tony Pastor and everyone else." When touring the South, Holiday would sometimes be heckled by members of the audience.

In 1939, Holiday recorded her biggest selling record, "Strange Fruit" for Commodore, charting at number 16 on the available pop charts for the 1930s.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Holiday had mainstream success on labels such as Columbia and Decca. By the late 1940s, however, she was beset with legal troubles. After a short prison sentence, she performed at a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall.

Billie Holiday and Mister, New York, N.Y., ca. June 1946 (William P. Gottlieb 04271)
Holiday and her dog Mister, New York, c. 1946

In September 1946, Holiday began her only major film, New Orleans, in which she starred opposite Louis Armstrong and Woody Herman.

She was a successful concert performer throughout the 1950s with two further sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall. Because of personal struggles and an altered voice, her final recordings were met with mixed reaction but were mild commercial successes. Her final album, Lady in Satin, was released in 1958.

Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday performing at the Storyville club, Boston, on October 29, 1955. Photo by Mel Levine.

Vocal style

Billie Holiday 5
Holiday performing at the Club Bali, Washington, with Al Dunn (drums), and Bobby Tucker (piano) in 1948

Holiday's delivery made her performances recognizable throughout her career. Her improvisation compensated for lack of musical education. Holiday said that she always wanted her voice to sound like an instrument and some of her influences were Louis Armstrong and the singer Bessie Smith.

Frank Sinatra was influenced as a young man by her performances on 52nd Street. He told Ebony magazine in 1958 about her impact:

With few exceptions, every major pop singer in the US during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius. It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me. Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years.

Personal life

Billie Holiday was married three times. Her first marriage was to James Monroe in 1941, but they divorced in 1947.

Billie Holiday's second husband was Joe Guy. They got married in 1951 but divorced in 1957.

Soon after, she then married Louis McKay, her third and final husband. McKay was a mobster. They were separated (but not divorced) at the time of her death.

Holiday was childless, but she had two godchildren: singer Billie Lorraine Feather (the daughter of Leonard Feather) and Bevan Dufty (the son of William Dufty).


Holiday died of cirrhosis on July 17, 1959, at age 44.

Her funeral Mass was held on July 21, 1959, at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in Manhattan. She was buried at Saint Raymond's Cemetery in the Bronx.

Interesting facts about Billie Holiday

  • She was nicknamed "Lady Day" by her friend and music partner, Lester Young.
  • Holiday was friends with the popular singer Ella Fitzgerald.
  • Holiday authored an autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, published in 1956.
  • Holiday won four Grammy Awards, all of them posthumously, for Best Historical Album.
  • She was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame.
  • In 2000, she was also inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as an early influence.
  • She was named one of the 50 Great Voices by NPR; and was ranked fourth on the Rolling Stone list of "200 Greatest Singers of All Time" (2023).
  • Several films about her life have been released, most recently The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021).
  • In 1985, a statue of Billie Holiday was erected in Baltimore; the statue was completed in 1993 with additional panels of images inspired by her seminal song Strange Fruit.
  • The Billie Holiday Monument is located at Pennsylvania and West Lafayette avenues in Baltimore's Upton neighborhood.
  • In 2019, Chirlane McCray announced that New York City would build a statue honoring Holiday near Queens Borough Hall.
  • The song Angel of Harlem by Irish rock band U2, released as a single in December 1988, was written as a homage to Billie Holiday.

Billie Holiday quotes

  • "If I'm going to sing like someone else, then I don't need to sing at all."
  • "Somebody once said we never know what is enough until we know what's more than enough."
  • "Sometimes it's worse to win a fight than to lose."
  • "If I don't have friends, then I ain't got nothing."

Films and plays about Holiday

  • The biographical film Lady Sings the Blues, loosely based on Holiday's autobiography, was released in 1972 and was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Diana Ross for Best Actress.
  • Another film, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, starred Andra Day and was released in 2021. It is based on the book Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari.
  • Holiday is the primary character in the play Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, with music by Lanie Robertson.
  • Billie is a 2019 documentary film based on interviews in the 1970s by Linda Lipnack Kuehl, who was researching a book on Holiday that was never completed.
  • Billie Holiday was also portrayed by actress Paula Jai Parker in Touched by an Angel's 2000 episode "God Bless the Child".


Billie Holiday 1949
Holiday, photographed by Carl Van Vechten in 1949

Studio LPs

  • Billie Holiday Sings (1952)
  • An Evening with Billie Holiday (1953)
  • Billie Holiday (1954)
  • Music for Torching (1955)
  • Velvet Mood (1956)
  • Lady Sings the Blues (1956)
  • Body and Soul (1957)
  • Songs for Distingué Lovers (1957)
  • Stay with Me (1958)
  • All or Nothing at All (1958)
  • Lady in Satin (1958)
  • Last Recording (1959)


Theatrical films

  • 1933: The Emperor Jones, appeared as an extra
  • 1935: Symphony in Black, short (with Duke Ellington)
  • 1947: New Orleans
  • 1950: 'Sugar Chile' Robinson, Billie Holiday, Count Basie and His Sextet

Television appearances

Year Program Host Songs
October 14, 1948 We the People Dwight Weist Unknown
1949 Adventures in Jazz Fred Robbins Unknown
August 27, 1949 Arlene Francis Show, NY (1) Arlene Francis "The Man I Love", "All of Me", "Lover Man"
August 27, 1949 Art Ford Show, NY (1) Art Ford "Lover Man", "I Cover the Waterfront", two-minute interview, "All of Me"
August 27, 1949 Eddie Condon's Floor Show, NY (1) Eddie Condon "I Love My Man", "Keeps on Rainin'", "Lover Man"
September 3, 1949 Eddie Condon's Floor Show, NY (1) Eddie Condon "Fine & Mellow", "Porgy", "Them There Eyes", "I Love My Man"
October 15, 1949 Art Ford Show, NY (1) Art Ford "Them There Eyes", "Detour Ahead", "Now or Never"
May 24, 1950 Apollo Theatre Show, NY (1) "You're My Thrill"
July 25, 1951 Apollo Theatre Show, NY (1) "My Man"
October 12, 1952 Apollo Theatre Show, NY (1) Count Basie "Tenderly"
October 16, 1953 The Comeback Story, NY (1) George Jessel Twenty-minute interview, "God Bless the Child"
February 8, 1955 The Tonight Show, NY (1) Steve Allen "My Man", "Them There Eyes", "Lover Man"
February 10, 1956 The Tonight Show, NY (1) Steve Allen "Please Don't Talk About Me", two-minute interview, "Ghost of a Chance"
August 13, 1956 Stars of Jazz, LA, CA (2) Bobby Troup "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone", "Billie's Blues", "My Man"
August 29, 1956 NBC Bandstand USA, NY (1) Bert Parks "Willow Weep for Me", "I Only Have Eyes for You", "My Man", "Please Don't Talk About Me"
October 29, 1956 NBC Bandstand USA, NY (1) Bert Parks "Nice Work If You Can Get It", "God Bless the Child", "Please Don't Talk About Me", "Don't Explain"
November 8, 1956 Night Beat, NY (1) Mike Wallace Fifteen-minute interview
November 8, 1956 Peacock Alley, NY (1) Tex McCrary Twenty-minute interview
November 8, 1956 The Tonight Show, NY (1) Steve Allen "Porgy"
November 3, 1957 Live Broadcast from Mister Kelly's, Chicago (1) "Good Morning Heartache", "You Better Go Now"
December 8, 1957 The Seven Lively Arts: The Sound of Jazz, LA (2) "Fine & Mellow"
April 12, 1958 Club Oasis, NY (1) Martha Raye "You've Changed", "My Man"
May 26, 1958 Telethon, NY Dean Martin Unknown
May 29, 1958 Art Ford's Jazz Party, WNTA-TV NY Art Ford "You've Changed", "I Love My Man", "When Your Lover Has Gone"
July 10, 1958 Art Ford's Jazz Party, NY (2) Art Ford "Foolin' Myself", "It's Easy to Remember", "What a Little Moonlight Can Do"
July 17, 1958 Art Ford's Jazz Party, NY (2) Art Ford "Moanin' Low", "Don't Explain", "When Your Lover Has Gone"
September 25, 1958 Today Show Dave Garroway "My Funny Valentine"
November 18, 1958 Mars Club, Music Hall Parade Voyons Un Peu, Paris France (2) "I Only Have Eyes for You"
November 20, 1958 Gilles Margaritis Programme, Paris France (2) Gilles Margaritis "Trav'lin' Light"
November 27, 1958 (Unconfirmed - Possibly December 4) Art Ford's Jazz Party, NY Art Ford "All of Me", "Good Morning Heartache", "Travelin' Light"
February 23, 1959 Chelsea at Nine, London, England (2) Robert Beatty "Porgy", "Please Don't Talk About Me", "Strange Fruit"

(1) = Available on audio (2) = Available on DVD

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Billie Holiday para niños

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