Billie Holiday Begins Her Recording Career Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Producer John Hammond’s recording of Billie Holiday singing with Benny Goodman’s band in 1933 brought her to the attention of jazz aficionados, and she gradually became a legendary singer.

Summary of Event

Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan in Baltimore, Maryland, on April 7, 1915, to Sadie Fagan and guitarist Clarence Holiday, a guitarist in the renowned band led by Fletcher “Smack” Henderson. Her parents were later married, but only for a brief time. After they separated, Holiday was left with relatives while her mother went to New York to find work. Several stories have been told about the origin of the name “Billie,” including that she was a tomboy, that her father called her “Bill,” and that the actress Billie Dove was her idol. [kw]Billie Holiday Begins Her Recording Career (1933) [kw]Holiday Begins Her Recording Career, Billie (1933) [kw]Recording Career, Billie Holiday Begins Her (1933) Jazz Music;jazz Musical recordings;Billie Holiday[Holiday] Blues music [g]United States;1933: Billie Holiday Begins Her Recording Career[08190] [c]Music;1933: Billie Holiday Begins Her Recording Career[08190] Holiday, Billie Young, Lester Wilson, Teddy Hammond, John Goodman, Benny Armstrong, Louis

When Holiday was ten years old, she was raped by a forty-year-old man. He went free, and she was sent to a Catholic “correctional” home. At thirteen, she went to live with her mother in Harlem. She smoked marijuana and was jailed as a prostitute. She said she ran errands for a madam so that she could hear the Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong records played in the parlor of the brothel.

At seventeen, she began to sing professionally in Harlem at Monette Moore’s speakeasy on 133rd Street for ten dollars a week. She soon began working at other Harlem clubs, and eventually Columbia Records producer John Hammond heard her. He arranged for her to record with Benny Goodman’s band on Columbia in 1933. The two sides were “Riffin’ the Scotch” and “Your Mother’s Son-in-Law.” In that same year, Teddy Wilson came to New York and signed with Brunswick Records. He played piano with Goodman’s small group (Lionel Hampton was on vibes) and recorded pop tunes for Brunswick in 1935. Earlier, Wilson had been allowed to record with Goodman for Victor Records; in return, Goodman had agreed to record as a sideman with him for Brunswick. Billie Holiday was chosen as the vocalist, and these recordings created a following among jazz musicians and jazz buffs.

In 1936, Count Basie’s band came to New York City. “The Count” had a Decca Records contract and could not play on the Wilson-Holiday recordings, but his sidemen—Buck Clayton, Freddie Greene, Walter Page, and Lester “Prez” Young—could. Young is generally recognized as the person who gave Holiday the nickname “Lady Day” or “The Lady.” In the jazz world, there was a Duke (Ellington), a Count, a “Prez”—short for “president”—and now a Lady.

In addition to Holiday, the 1936 recordings featured other fine musicians, including Jonah Jones, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, John Kirby, Cozy Cole, Vido Musso, Ben Webster, and of course, Teddy Wilson, whose ability to play with his left hand was far ahead of most other pianists. For eight months, Holiday was Count Basie’s vocalist, and three airchecks—recordings of the Basie band live at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem in 1937—made during this time were later released commercially. For a short time, she was also the vocalist for bandleader Artie Shaw, but a miserable trip on the band bus through the segregated South helped inform her decision to work on her own from that point.

In 1936, she began recording with her own group for Vocalion Records. Shaw was a sideman on one session along with Bunny Berigan and Joe Bushkin. She again recorded for Vocalion in 1938 and 1939 and also worked for Columbia as Wilson’s vocalist and as the leader of a group called Billie Holiday and Her Orchestra. From 1939 through 1941, she recorded with her own band for OKeh Records and as vocalist with Teddy Wilson and his orchestra. On a number of the OKeh recordings, Lester Young, Walter Page, Freddie Greene, and Jo Jones joined her. Roy “Little Jazz” Eldridge played trumpet on several of the recordings, and Charlie Shavers also played on one. Lester Young, Eddie Heywood (on piano), and Kenny Clarke (on drums) were among the people who recorded “Georgia on My Mind” with Holiday in 1941.

In the late 1940’s, some of the Teddy Wilson recordings were reissued by Commodore Records, including “Gloomy Sunday,” which was more of a folk song than a piece of jazz or popular music but nonetheless became identified with Holiday. The recording was purportedly a version of a Hungarian “suicide song” that had, it was said, been banned from radio because some listeners had killed themselves—although a disclaimer toward the end of the song noted that the singer was “only dreaming.”

Another song that was neither jazz nor pop belongs to Holiday alone. “Strange Fruit,” a poem set to music, describes the contrast between the ugly violence of lynchings and the physical beauty of the South. She recorded it in 1939, a brave act at a time when the issue of such a racially charged song could have wrecked her career or led to physical harm. Southern writer Lillian Smith used the song’s title as the title of a novel about racial violence in the South.

Holiday created some other songs that would always be identified with her, including “God Bless the Child,” which has the structure of a pop tune but the feel of a blues lament and is still recorded by vocalists in many genres. Several original blues tunes that she performed have stayed in the jazz vocalist repertoire, including “Fine and Mellow,” “Billie’s Bounce,” “Long Gone Blues,” and “Billie’s Blues.”

Later, Holiday made other recordings of the tunes she had first sung in the 1930’s and early 1940’s, but the early recordings give the listener a strong, young Holiday at home within the structure of the song. Among these often-recorded early performances were “Them There Eyes,” “Love Me or Leave Me,” “I Cover the Waterfront,” “I Can’t Get Started,” “These Foolish Things,” “No Regrets,” and “Some Other Spring.” Other later songs also identified with Holiday include “Trav’lin’ Light,” “Don’t Explain,” “Good Morning, Heartache,” and “Easy Livin’.” Even some songs originally identified with blues giant Bessie Smith came to be known as Holiday’s, including “Gimme a Pigfoot” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business.”


In 1938, Holiday moved from Harlem into Manhattan. She began performing at the well-known Café Society, and until the late 1940’s she worked at various Manhattan jazz clubs. In 1947, she appeared, dressed as a maid, in the film New Orleans. In that same year, however, she was arrested for possession of heroin and sentenced to a year and a day in a federal prison in Alderson, West Virginia. Ten days after her release, she performed to a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall. She could not, however, work in any jazz club in New York City; an archaic law required performers in establishments that sold liquor to obtain a “cabaret card” that permitted them to work there, and cabaret cards were unavailable to musicians with drug convictions. Holiday was thus prohibited from working in her own town, the center of live jazz performance in the United States at that time.

In the early 1950’s, Steve Allen, the host of an early New York television variety show that would later become The Tonight Show, featured a number of notable jazz performers, including Holiday, on his program. In 1957, a television special with Lester Young and others let fans see and hear her one more time; the sound track to the special was released as the album The Sound of Jazz. In 1956, Holiday wrote her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, with coauthor William F. Dufty. A hit 1972 film based on the book starred Diana Ross as Holiday. Although Ross’s music was very different from Holiday’s, the film’s sound track introduced another generation to Holiday’s songs.

Holiday toured Europe in the last few years of her life and was enthusiastically received. Her last performance in New York City was a 1959 benefit performance at the Phoenix Theater. On May 31 of that year, she collapsed at her Manhattan apartment. In a coma, she was taken by a police ambulance to a private hospital, where she lay unattended for an hour. She was then taken to Metropolitan Hospital in Harlem. She lingered, under an oxygen tent, for more than two weeks, with a policeman outside her door. Authorities denied that the officer was waiting to arrest her, but rumors of Holiday’s pending arrest continued, and the officer was removed by court order the day before Holiday died.

When Holiday collapsed, she had seventy cents in her bank account and $750 in cash taped to her leg. Three thousand people attended her funeral at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church in Harlem, and she was buried in Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx. For some time, her grave was not marked by a headstone, a fact that resulted in an angry article in Downbeat magazine. (Ironically, she never won the top spot in any of Downbeat’s celebrated polls.)

The success of Holiday’s music was entirely dependent on her much-discussed style. Despite the fact that many scholars have written about the way she altered the melodic line of a song, she did not, in fact, play around with melody very much—no more, for example, than the young Miles Davis, who played “Blue Room” almost note for note. Unlike other popular African American stars of the day such as Ella Fitzgerald, Fats Waller, the Ink Spots, and the Mills Brothers, Holiday’s music was not featured on the jukeboxes in white establishments. She simply recorded the popular songs of the day, some of which became standards.

Others commented that Holiday sang “like a horn player,” but this is not quite right. Holiday shared Louis Armstrong’s ability to use vocals to play with the time, a skill she demonstrated on the “up” tunes on her 1930’s recordings. On such songs, the last bars of the chorus that led into a musician’s solo often anticipated the solo, inviting the instrumentalist into the tune. Holiday’s talent, however, was not confined to the room she could make inside those four-beat rhythms. Sometimes it emerged from the spaces between the notes or in her accents on particular notes, words, or syllables. Although “percussive” is too strong a term to describe her technique, her work is almost percussive and almost syncopated. To her unique sense of timing she added bent, gliding notes in a voice that could seem both sweet and sassy. Although toward the end of her career—when both her health and breath were fading—she sometimes sounded like an imitation of herself, many people preferred her later style, which seemed to embody a universally held idea of suffering. Jazz Music;jazz Musical recordings;Billie Holiday[Holiday] Blues music

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Friedwald, Will. Jazz Singing: America’s Great Voices from Bessie Smith to Bebop and Beyond. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1990. An excellent illustrated overview of the contributions of great jazz vocalists, from Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby through Betty Carter. The author contrasts Holiday’s singing with that of Ella Fitzgerald, noting that the two singers “travel completely different ways to the same destination.” Lucid, scholarly, and comprehensive.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holiday, Billie, and William F. Dufty. Lady Sings the Blues. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1956. Holiday’s autobiography is frank in its presentation of details about her painful childhood and drug addiction, although some people who knew Holiday later in life have criticized the book as unreliable.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">James, Burnett. Billie Holiday. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1984. A useful short biography of the singer produced as part of the “Jazz Masters” series. Illustrated; helpful selective discography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jones, LeRoi. Blues People: The Negro Experience in White America. 1963. Reprint. New York: William Morrow, 1999. Examines how blues and jazz evolved in white America, including valuable discussion of Holiday’s work. Generally an important and useful study. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kliment, Bud. Billie Holiday. New York: Chelsea House, 1990. A profusely illustrated biography directed toward younger readers. Contains an introductory essay, “On Achievement,” by Coretta Scott King.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pleasants, Henry. The Great American Popular Singers. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1974. An interesting although somewhat dated overview of the topic. Useful, and somewhat unusual, in its discussion of Holiday and other jazz and blues artists alongside singers such as Elvis Presley and Hank Williams, who earned their fame in other genres. Illustrated, with a glossary of singing terms.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. 3d ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997. Excellent scholarly account of the subject provides both background and important detail. Includes critical bibliography and discography as well as numerous selections from scores and an extensive index.

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Categories: History