Authors: Billie Holiday

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American singer and memoirist

Identity: African American, gay or bisexual

Author Works


Lady Sings the Blues, 1956 (with William Dufty)


Billie Holiday is regarded by nearly all jazz musicians and enthusiasts as the greatest jazz singer in history, and all performers in this musical genre acknowledge a debt to her. Her impeccable timing and phrasing brought life and intensity to many an ordinary song, and her interpretations of popular songs, or standards, such as “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “The Man I Love” are touchstones of jazz. She had no formal musical training–or training of any other kind, for she dropped out of grade school–but she had a plaintive, compelling, almost childlike voice coupled with a constantly changing sense of interpretation that surprised the listener who was familiar with the basic song. She characteristically sang in a slow, languid, manner, lagging behind the beat even on fast-tempo songs, creating a tension between singer and musicians and emphasizing the improvisational and polyphonic sound which is the essence of jazz.{$I[AN]9810001786}{$I[A]Holiday, Billie}{$S[A]Fagan, Eleanora;Holiday, Billie}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Holiday, Billie}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Holiday, Billie}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Holiday, Billie}{$I[geo]GAY OR BISEXUAL;Holiday, Billie}{$I[tim]1915;Holiday, Billie}

Billie Holiday, born Eleanora Fagan, was an illegitimate child. Fagan was her mother’s name and Holiday that of her father, who later married her mother but then drifted away again. Eleanora took her stage name, Billie, from her favorite film actress, Billie Dove. Weighted with the multiple burdens of being poor, illegitimate, black, and female, Billie Holiday developed a personality that both craved abuse (at first that was the only condition she experienced and understood) and dispensed that abuse, even to her friends–perhaps her only way of lashing back at the world that had caused her such pain.

Her early life was marked by commitment to a reform school for girls at the age of nine, prostitution, and general neglect. She began singing in Baltimore bars and eventually moved to New York, where her mother got a job as a maid. New York’s main black community was Harlem, then in the midst of a musical explosion. Band leaders such as Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway drew white audiences to nightclubs, while other black musicians sharpened their skills at the illegal bars known as speakeasies. Holiday first began to be noticed when she sang at a speakeasy called Pod’s and Jerry’s in 1930. Soon, well-known musicians such as Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and her best friend, saxophonist Lester Young, who gave her the nickname “Lady Day,” were performing and recording with her.

During the 1930’s and 1940’s, Holiday played engagements at first all over New York and then all over the country, touring with such band leaders as Count Basie and Artie Shaw. Her performances with Shaw, who led a white band, were both groundbreaking and volatile. Many audiences, even in places outside the Deep South, were unwilling to accept a black female singer fronting a white band; there was constant friction, as Holiday often rebelled against degrading conditions such as having to stay in a different hotel from the one where the band stayed.

Meanwhile, Lady Day’s personal life grew worse; she had a series of abusive and exploitive husbands, boyfriends, and lesbian lovers. First, she began to drink as a refuge from her chaotic life, then she moved on to marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. The climax of her drug abuse came with a series of highly publicized drug arrests, jailings, and hospitalizations during the 1940’s. Many people in her audiences now came not to hear her sing but to gawk at a freak. Holiday’s last decade was a long downward slide mixed with triumphant performances such as her Carnegie Hall comeback concert in 1948 and recordings that remained full of emotional power even when her voice was so ravaged that she could only speak, not sing, the words to her songs. The end came from alcoholism, not heroin use, and the society which had treated her so poorly had one last indignity to inflict on her: A nurse found drugs in her hospital room, and she was arrested for drug possession on her deathbed.

Holiday is an important figure in a number of ways besides her contributions as a musician. Openly bisexual, she was a trailblazer for gay and bisexual people. To the women’s rights movement, she is both a victim, for she allowed men to beat and use her, and a heroine, for she repeatedly insisted on being treated with respect in her professional life. Her battle with drugs is also significant in that her struggles with the law dramatized the absurdity of attempting to define drug addiction as a criminal offense rather than as a medical or psychological problem. Most important, to black Americans, her performances offer proof of the depth, meaning, and artistic value of their lives and history.

For years, Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, ghost written by William Dufty, was the best source of information about her. Holiday authorized the book in order to turn a profit, and she hoped to have it made into a film. Lady Sings the Blues did become a film in 1972, with Diana Ross in the title role. Both book and film contain many inaccuracies that have been perpetuated in other works that use the autobiography as main source material.

BibliographyChilton, John. Billie’s Blues: The Billie Holiday Story, 1933-1959. 1975. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1989. Concentrates on analyzing Holiday’s performances.Clarke, Donald. Wishing on the Moon: The Life and Times of Billie Holiday. New York: Viking, 1994. A well-researched biography.Davis, Angela Yvonne. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998. Analyzes Holiday’s importance for black feminists.Gourse, Leslie, ed. The Billie Holiday Companion: Seven Decades of Commentary. New York: Schirmer Books, 1997. A collection of essays about Holiday’s life and career.Kliment, Bud. Billie Holiday. Los Angeles: Melrose Square, 1990. Part of the Black Americans of Achievement series for teenage readers. Uses Lady Sings the Blues as primary source material and thus perpetuates some inaccuracies.Nicholson, Stuart. Billie Holiday. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1995. A biographical study. Includes bibliographical references, an index, and a discography.O’Meally, Robert. Lady Day: The Many Faces of Lady Day. New York: Arcade, 1991. Builds on the research of Linda Lipnack Kuehl, who died before she could turn her findings into a book. Includes an extensive bibliography.White, John. Billie Holiday: Her Life and Times. New York: Universe Books, 1987. Includes many pictures and a lengthy bibliography.
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