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Remember the ladies: Billie Holiday

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Born Eleonora Fagn in Baltimore, MD, probably around 1915.

Lady Day. One of the most influential jazz singers of all time, Billie Holiday had a thriving career for many years before her battles with substance abuse got the better of her.

Holiday spent much of her childhood in Baltimore, Maryland. Her mother, Sadie, was only a teenager when she had her. Her father is widely believed to be Clarence Holiday, who eventually became a successful jazz musician, playing with the likes of Fletcher Henderson. Unfortunately for Billie, he was only an infrequent visitor in her life growing up. Sadie married Philip Gough in 1920 and for a few years Billie had a somewhat stable home life. But that marriage ended a few years later, leaving Billie and Sadie to struggle along on their own again. Sometimes Billie was left in the care of other people.

One night, in 1931, she was asked to sing at the club where she worked. She did, and “the whole joint quieted down. If someone had dropped a pin, it would have sounded like a bomb.”

She was largely ignored until she began touring with Count Basie’s and Artie Shaw’s bands in the late 30’s. She had constant struggles with her managers, and unsuccessful battles with drug and alcohol addiction.

Warm, generous and vital, she was often unhappy, but her fans loved her. And she loved to sing. She had an unshakable reverence for music and the power of emotion.

“I can’t stand to sing the same song the same way two nights in succession. If you can, then it ain’t music, it’s closer to order drill, or exercise or yodeling or something, not music.”


Partly taken from Remember the Ladies, Kirstin Olsen. The Main Street Press, 1988, partly from Featured Biographies

Author: barenose

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