Difficult Life of Billie Holiday

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“If I am going to sing like someone else, then I don’t need to sing at all.” (Brainyquote.com 2019) these words were spoken by Billie Holiday, an inspiring blues artist. The life of Eleanora Fagan or better known as Billie Holiday was filled with neglect and controversy, yet her influences helped her through hard times, and musical contributions made her one of the best jazz vocalist of all time.

Billie Holiday had a life filled with hardships and disputes. She was born as Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915. Eleanora was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Biography.com 2019). Her mother, Sarah Fagan, married her father, Clarence Holiday, at a young age. In Eleanora’s autobiography “Lady Sings the Blues” she states,”Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married; he was eighteen, she was sixteen, and I was three.”(Americaslibrary.gov 2019) Later, when her parents divorced it led to inconsistent visits from her father.

It is said that he later became a successful jazz musician. Eleanora had to live in the care of other people because her mother wasn’t able to financially support her on her own. This was a dark time for her because she was sexually assaulted and she didn’t have her mom. This eventually allowed her to return to her to mothers care. Shortly after, Eleonora and her mom moved to New York. In 1931 Eleanora’s singing career took off. When her career peaked she started to call herself Billie. Eleanora nicknamed herself Billie after the famous movie star Billie Dove (Biography.com 2019).

Her musical contributions made her one of the best jazz vocalist of all time. While performing at a club she was discovered by a producer named John Hammond at the age of 18. Billie had her own distinctive style that set her apart from the rest. When she came on the stage she had flowers in her hair, she sang with her head tilted back and mouth opened wide. Her voice had its own sound, the way she phrased words while she was singing made people gather around. Billie did not want to sing or look like anyone else because then she felt that the role would then have already been fulfilled by someone else. In 1935 Billie bagan to branch out and sing with other people. During this time she released many singles including,”What a Little Moonlight Can Do”, “Riffin’ the Scotch”, and “Miss Brown to You”(Biography.com 2019).

Around this time that she met a man named, Lester Young. He was a part of an orchestra called Count Basie. Billie became his friend and helped him by letting him live with him and her mom. He gave her the nickname “Lady Day” and let her work with his orchestra. The following year she worked with a man named Artie Shaw and his orchestra. Being in his orchestra made her the first female African-American to work with a white orchestra. However, people discriminated against her because of her race and style. Billie left and went on to perform on her own. At this time that she came out with “God Bless the Child” and ”Strange Fruit” (Biographgy.com 2019).

The song “Strange Fruit” was rejected by many radio stations and her current record company. The song was banned because it protested american racism. It mainly focused on the lynching of African-Americans though the representation of fruit. In the song she compares the bodies to the fruit singing,”Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees”. The controversy that surrounded the song helped make it a hit. Some of her other songs like,”My man” reflect on her personal relationships. These relationships were often abusive. Her boyfriends would use her fame to make themselves famous (Biography.com 2019).

Her influences helped her through hard times. Billie Holiday’s biggest influences were Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. Louis was a trumpeter and Bessie was a singer, they worked together on a song called,”St. Louis Blues”. Billie had found comfort in their music. When she was younger she would run errands, and in return she would get to listen to their music (archive.nytimes.com). Much later she was able to appear in the film “New Orleans” with Louis Armstrong in 1947. Both artist have influenced her to be one of the most influential jazz vocalist of all time. Billie Holiday’s music inspired Amy Winehouse, a singer and songwriter (Biography.com 2019).

Holiday had a long battle with substance abuse which worsened each time she separated from one of her boyfriends. She picked up smoking opium from her ex-husband James Monroe, while dating Joe Guy she started using heroin, and after her mother passed it continued to get worse. On top of this Billie was already known for having a drinking problem. This only set her back in her career, she was arrested for possession of narcotics. She ended up serving a year in jail and was unable to get a proper licence to perform in clubs. Holiday was arrested again nine years later with Louis McKay, for narcotics. Billie was arrested for a third time on her death bed because of her addiction (Biography.com 2019).

All things considered, Billie Holiday’s life was filled with abuse and controversy. She was seen as an icon for her style when performing and one of the best jazz vocalist of all time. Sadly her life came to an end at the age of 44 on July 17 in 1959. She was admitted to the hospital for heart and liver problems and later died due to complications. Billie had a very difficult life but made the most of it. She prospered even when she was being taken advantage of. She made a name for herself and got to perform with her idol. Billie Holiday was an amazing artist who was trying to survive the tough challenges that were sent her way (Biography.com 2019).


Cite this paper

Difficult Life of Billie Holiday. (2021, Aug 14). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/difficult-life-of-billie-holiday/



What are 3 important life events about Billie Holiday?
Billie Holiday was born on April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She died on July 17, 1959 in New York City, New York.
What kind of problems did Billie have in the 1940s?
She was an African American woman living in the Jim Crow south and faced discrimination and racism on a daily basis. Additionally, she was a working woman during a time when most women were expected to be stay-at-home wives and mothers.
What was tragic about Billie Holiday's death?
Even though Billie Holiday was one of the most influential jazz singers of all time, she died penniless and alone. Her death was due to alcohol and drug abuse, which she had been struggling with for many years.
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