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Black Music Month: Billie Holiday

MI0001325116Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915, in Baltimore, Maryland. (She borrowed the name “Billie” from one of her favorite movie actresses, Billie Dove.)

Holiday was born into poverty and was working by the age of six. She was raped when she was ten and then sent to a home. By fourteen she was in jail for prostitution.

In 1928 Holiday moved to New York City with her mother, who began work as a housemaid, but the 1929 depression (time of low economic conditions with high rates of unemployment) soon left her mother without work. In 1932 Holiday auditioned for a singing job and was hired. For the next few years she sang in Harlem clubs, then her career took off when Benny Goodman (1901–1986) used her on a record. But it was through a series of recordings made between 1935 and 1939 that her international reputation was established. During the late 1930s she was also a big band vocalist, first with Count Basie in 1937 and then with Artie Shaw in 1938.

From 1944, Holiday recorded with Decca, and made some of her most famous tracks, such as ‘God Bless The Child’, ‘Don’t Explain’ and ‘Lover Man’. She spent most of 1947 in prison for heroin possession and, as a result, lost her cabaret license.

While her exposure was limited, her seemingly glamorous lifestyle and reputation helped her popularity grow.

However, her lifestyle had a more devastating effect on her voice and, by the 1950s, her voice sounded broken and tired. However, Holiday continued to record and, in 1958, released the album ‘Lady in Satin’. Over this period, she made 100 new recordings with Columbus and toured Europe. She made her final recordings with MGM in 1959.

In 1959, Holiday was hospitalised and, on 17 July 1959, she died of cirrhosis of the liver, aged just 44 and with 70 cents in the bank.

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Ivan Rodriguez

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