April 7: Legendary jazz singer "Lady Day" Billie Holiday was born on this date in 1915...

... she died on July 17, 1959 when she was 43 years-old.

Billie Holiday's vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo. Music critic John Bush wrote that Holiday "changed the art of American pop vocals forever."

Billie Holiday co-wrote several jazz standards; "God Bless the Child," "Don't Explain," "Fine and Mellow," and "Lady Sings the Blues." She also became famous for singing "Easy Living," "Good Morning Heartache," and "Strange Fruit," a protest song which became one of her standards and was made famous with her 1939 recording. "God Bless the Child" became Holiday's most popular record, selling over a million copies, ranked number 3 on Billboard's year-end top songs of 1941.

Eleanora Fagan at 2 years-old

Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to her mother Sarah Julia "Sadie" Fagan (née Harris), and musician Clarence Halliday (Holiday). With no support from her parents, Eleanora stayed with her older married half sister, Eva Miller, who lived in Baltimore.

Eleanora frequently skipped school and her truancy resulted in her being brought before the juvenile court when she was not yet 10. She was sent to The House of the Good Shepherd, a Catholic reform school. After nine months she was returned to her mother who opened a restaurant called the East Side Grill, where she and Eleanora worked long hours. By the age of 11, Eleanora had dropped out of school.

Her mother caught a neighbor raping Eleanora. Officials placed her in the House of the Good Shepherd in protective custody as a state witness in the rape case. Eleanora was released in February 1927, and she and her mother began working at a brothel. During this time, Eleanora first heard the records of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith.

Eleanora began to perform the songs she learned while working in the brothel. In order to live, Sadie became a prostitute in New York at the age of 14.

Eleanora took her stage name from Billie Dove, an actress she admired, and the musician Clarence Holiday, her probable father. At the outset of her career, she spelled her last name Halliday, the birth-surname of her father, but eventually changed it to Holiday, his performing name. The young singer teamed up with a neighbor, tenor sax player Kenneth Hollan. From 1929 to 1931, they were a team, performing at clubs such as the Grey Dawn, Pod's and Jerry's, and the Brooklyn Elks' Club.

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Lady Day: The Master Takes & Singles

As her reputation grew, Holiday played at many clubs, including Mexico's and The Alhambra Bar and Grill where Charles Linton, a vocalist who later worked with Chick Webb, first met her. It was also during this period that she connected with her father Clarence Holiday, who was playing with Fletcher Henderson's band.

By the end of 1932 at the age of 17, Billie Holiday replaced the singer Monette Moore at a club called Covan's on West 132nd Street. The producer John Hammond, first heard Holiday in early 1933. Hammond arranged for Holiday to make her recording debut, at age 18, in November 1933 with Benny Goodman, singing two songs: "Your Mother's Son-In-Law" and "Riffin' the Scotch."

Holiday returned to the studio in 1935 with Goodman and a group led by pianist Teddy Wilson. Their first collaboration included "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," and "Miss Brown To You." She began recording under her own name a year later, producing a series of extraordinary performances with groups comprising the swing era's finest musicians.

In 1935, Billie Holiday had a small role as a woman being abused by her lover in Duke Ellington's short Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life. In her scene, she sang the song "Saddest Tale."

Holiday was signed to Brunswick Records by John Hammond to record current pop tunes with Teddy Wilson in the new "swing" style for the growing jukebox trade. They were given free rein to improvise the material.

Holiday's improvisation of the melody line to fit the emotion was revolutionary. With their arrangements, Wilson and Holiday took pedestrian pop tunes, such as "Twenty-Four Hours a Day" and "Yankee Doodle Never Went To Town," and turned them into jazz classics.

Teddy Wilson, one of the most influential jazz pianists from the swing era, accompanied Holiday more than any other musician. Holiday's early successes were released under the band name "Teddy Wilson & his Orchestra." At the time, she was in her early to late 20s.

Most of Holiday's recordings with Wilson or under her own name during the 1930s and early 1940s are regarded as important parts of the jazz vocal library. He and Holiday have 95 recordings together.
In July 1936, Holiday began releasing sides under her own name, released under the band name "Billie Holiday & Her Orchestra." Most noteworthy, the popular jazz standard "Summertime," sold well and was listed on the available pop charts at the time at number 12, the first time the jazz standard charted under any artist.

On March 27, 1948, Holiday played Carnegie Hall to a sold-out crowd; a major accomplishment for any artist, especially a black artist of the segregated period of American history. She sang 32 songs that night. Holiday's last song to chart was "Lover Man" in 1945.

By the 1950s, Holiday's drug abuse, drinking, and relationships with abusive men caused her health to deteriorate. Her later recordings showed the effects of declining health on her voice, as it grew coarse and no longer projected its former vibrancy.

On November 10, 1956, Holiday performed two more concerts before packed audiences at Carnegie Hall, Live recordings of the second Carnegie Hall concert were released on a Verve/HMV album in the UK in late 1961 called The Essential Billie Holiday.

Suffering from liver and heart disease, Billie Holiday died in the Metropolitan Hospital, New York, on Friday, July 17, 1959, in the bed in which she had been arrested for illegal possession of narcotics the previous month.



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