Tragedy, Addiction and Fame: A Look Back at Billie Holiday

by / June 11, 2014 video 56 Comments

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Billie Holiday is one of the most revered jazz vocalists of the century.  She was born April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania as Eleanora Fagan to her teenage mother, Sadie.  Holiday spent a large portion of her childhood in Baltimore, Maryland.  She grew up without a stable, consistent father figure, and at just 9 years old, she was sent to the House of Good Shepherd as a result of her mother winding up in court for her skipping school.  The home was a facility for troubled African American girls.

Holiday later moved to New York with her mother and wound up working as a prostitute in Harlem to earn money.  Not long after, she began singing at local clubs and adopted the name Billie.  Holiday was soon discovered performing at a Harlem jazz club by John Hammond, and she released her first commercial track “Your Mother’s Son-In-Law.”

Holiday went on to produce several singles, and in 1937 she began touring with the Count Basie Orchestra.  In 1938, Holiday broke down barriers when she worked with Artie Shaw and his orchestra becoming one of the first black female singers to work with an all white orchestra.

In 1941, she married James Monroe, and began using opium with him.  Although she eventually divorced Monroe, Holiday’s issues with substance abuse remained after the marriage ended.  Holiday later dated trumpeter Joe Guy who introduced her to heroin, and her substance abuse continued to worsen after her mother’s death in October 1945.

Holiday was still able to maintain her success in the music world despite her issues with substance abuse, but in 1947 she spent time in prison for narcotics possession.  Holiday continued down the path of tragedy and success when she began dating John Levy in the late 1940s.  Levy became another one of the men in Holiday’s life who enabled her drug use and took advantage of her.

Holiday went on to have a successful European tour in 1954 after which she became involved with Louis McKay who took advantage of her name and money much like other men before him.

Holiday continued to record and perform.  Her last album was Lady in Satin produced in 1958, and she gave her final performance in New York City on May 25, 1959.  Not long after that performance, Holiday was admitted to the hospital for heart and liver problems stemming from her years of drug and alcohol use.  Even after being hospitalized, Holiday was too addicted to heroin to quit using.  She died July 17, 1959 from health complications caused by her drug use.

The following video is a 1955 recording of a Billie Holiday rehearsal where she discusses  her first audition, the art of singing, and the number 13. Check it out to take a look back in time through archival footage of the famed singer just three years before her death.

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