Who was Billie Holiday?

Billie Holiday was an improviser of genius. Her ability to give an ordinary pop tune a subtle new shape and depth of meaning made her that most elusive of beings, a true jazz singer.

Billie Holiday remains, very likely, the best. Her youthful records from the ’30s still constitute a benchmark for jazz vocalists. In them, Lady Day is the peer of the all-star casts who surround her – chief among them her soulmate, tenorman Lester Young. Together, she and Young spin wonders like their impromptu duet on ‘Me, Myself and I’, which Holiday launches with a deft quotation from her main influence, Louis Armstrong. But her phrasing, swing and confidence are her own, as in her assured entrance on ‘Miss Brown to You’, sliding across the beat, yet clear as a bell.

Musicians thought her a marvel. As an accompanist put it, ‘To me her greatest quality was not the one everybody fixes on – the expression and feeling – but her innately and absolutely perfect timing.’

When was Billie Holiday born?

Billie Holiday was born on 7 April 1915 in Philadelphia. She did not have the easiest of childhoods as her father disappeared soon after her birth and as her mother was often absent she was brought up by other members of her extended family before going into care.

What was Billie Holiday's real name?

Billie Holiday's real name was Eleanora Fagan. Halliday was her probable father's surname while Billie Dove was her favourite actress. Her friend and music partner Lester Young nicknamed her 'Lady Day'.

When did Billie Holiday start singing?

Holiday started singing in nightclubs in Harlem and her big break came when producer John Hammond heard her. In 1935, when 20 yeas old, she gained a recording contract with Brunswick. Success followed throughout the 1930s and 40s with hits such as 'I Wished on the Moon' and 'Carelessly'.

More like this

But Holiday’s later career came to be dominated by expression and feeling of a particularly obsessive kind. She began to see herself less as a jazz singer than a chanteuse, increasingly concentrating on laments of love and loss which unhappily reflected her own circumstances. She fell prey to booze, drugs and above all her homing instinct for abusive men. Her repertoire seemed a self-conscious litany of hard times, a kind of voluptuous suffering which kindred spirits found irresistible. To others, however, the repetition of the same stock of desolate tunes was evidence of Lady Day’s decline, confirmed by the inexorable decay in her vocal powers.

But she still retained her artistry, and some admirers revere her last recordings – before her lonely death at 44 – as a haunting distillation of her powers. The Holiday volume in the Ken Burns Jazz CD series chronicles her problematic career, beginning with three buoyant performances from the ’30s. Her later dramatic style appears in the searing ‘Strange Fruit’ and yearning classics such as ‘Lover Man’. But listeners who want a richer mix of Lady Day in the bloom of youth may want to invest in a ten-CD set from Columbia, Lady Day.

How did Billie Holiday die?

On 17 July 1959 Billie Holiday sadly died of pulmonary edema and heart failure caused by cirrhosis of the liver, most likely caused by her drinking. She was just 44 years old.

We named Billie Holiday one of the greatest jazz singers of all time

Billie Holiday best recordings

Ken Burns Jazz

Verve 549 0812

Billie Holiday

Lady Day – The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia (1933-44)

Sony 88697538062
(10 discs)

Billie Holiday

Lady in Satin

Sony CK65144


Geoffrey SmithJournalist and Jazz Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Born in Michigan, USA in 1943 Geoffrey Smith grew up to the diverse sounds of Schubert, jazz and Gilbert & Sullivan. Today he is based in the UK and is a freelance writer and lecturer, contributing articles and reviews to a variety of publications, including BBC Music Magazine, Country Life, New Society and The Spectator. He was also previously the presenter of Jazz Record Requests and Geoffrey Smith's Jazz on BBC Radio 3.