Billie Holiday is one of the most influential singers of her era, a powerful jazz vocalist whose voice carried the emotions and burdens of her rough upbringing and ongoing struggles. Despite her hardships, Holiday achieved memorable heights in her career. Today marks 100 years since the birth of “Lady Day,” and her journey and memory is worth celebrating.
Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her mother, Sadie, had her when she was just a teenager. Holiday was raised primarily in Baltimore and barely knew her father, jazz musician Clarence Holiday. Although her mother married and there were moments of stability, much of Holiday’s young life was turbulent and she moved around from home to home.
During these struggles, Holiday turned to music and sung along with records from Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. Holiday’s mother moved to New York in the late ’20’s and worked in a brothel. In 1930, Eleanora took on her now-iconic stage name “Billie” after film actress Billie Dove and took her father’s last name. She was discovered by John Hammond at age 18 at a Harlem jazz club and began working with the legendary Benny Goodman.
In 1935, Holiday appeared alongside Duke Ellington in the film, Symphony In Black. Around this period is when Holiday met Lester Young, a saxophonist in the Count Basie Orchestra. It was Young who gave her the famous ‘Lady Day’ nickname. Holiday toured extensively with the orchestra and became a household name.
Her talent led her to sing with Artie Shaw and his orchestra, making her one of the first Black singers to be backed by a white band. But the racism and segregation of the time made it difficult for Holiday to find footing she eventually left the group.