Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday

When you listen to Billie Holiday singing "Strange fruit" in a live performance in 1959, at times you feel that that broken and at times torn voice embodies every inch of her face.

It is the voice of one of the three most important jazz singers of all time, nicknamed Lady Day, to whom the critic Robert Christgau dedicated these words: "Billie Holiday is unequalled and possibly the greatest singer of the century".

The beauty of Holiday's voice is basically constituted by her extraordinary interpretative talent, as well as by a mastery of swing combined with her vocal ability to adjust to the content of the song. Billie is considered an interpreter who uses personal meaning in each song, as if she lived what she sang, to which is added an intense and intimate texture compared to the vocalizations of Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey or Louis Armstrong himself.


Billie Holiday was born in Philadelphia on April 7, 1915 and died in New York on July 17, 1959 of cirrhosis of the liver. Her real name is Eleanora Holiday Fagan. Her life is just as dramatic as that of many jazzmen of the last century, in which a principle of economic poverty, dysfunctional families and the powerful talent that immortalizes them abound.

In Holiday's case, she was fathered by a mother who was only 13 years old and a bassist and jazz guitarist father who was only 15 years old. This origin made Billie a lonely girl who, at the age of 10, and after admitting she was raped, she was sent to a Catholic school. From this school Billie managed to escape and in 1927 she moved with her mother to New Jersey and then to New York where she worked as a prostitute. 

Her musical beginnings were between 1930-1932. In this period Billie Holiday sang in New York nightclubs, developing her vocal skills, stage presence and command with the public. It was during this period that the famous producer John Hammond got to know her, organizing several sessions with Benny Goodman. From this relationship and experience came her first album: Your Mother's Son-In-Law.

Her career was impregnated with numerous musical highlights: stages shared with other legendary jazzmen and a constellation of songs that showed her talent: My Last Affair (This Is), Night and Day, Everything Happens for the Best, He's Funny That Way and her mythical song Strange Fruit.

His life ended with a sustained physical deterioration, the result of substance abuse such as drugs and alcohol, of which he was dependent from a very early age, although historians record his addiction to heroin during the 40's. At the end of his life, Holiday was in trouble with the law for drug possession and was the victim of several scams related to his earnings. He died with less than a dollar in his bank accounts and $750 in cash.


Frank Sinatra himself considered Billie Holiday as his main influence. Even legendary and renowned stars such as Nina Simone, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse and Maria Carey, confirm Billie's influence on their artistic careers. 

Sinatra himself refers to Holiday as "the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years". For their part, several critics consider that this popular singing, driven by the struggles against American racism, would never be the same without Billie Holiday's throat. 

Curiously, Billie had a limited voice: an octave and a half register that she was able to overcome on stage with her virtuoso improvisation skills, the emotional impact she felt in each lyric and her way of musically narrating the sadness that accompanied her throughout her life.

The importance of cinema in Billie Holiday's life is also mentioned here. The biographical film Tallulah Bankhead: Billie Holiday, which exposes the sentimental relationship Holiday had with the American actress. This film is undoubtedly essential to understand Billie's life and the confession of her bisexuality made by herself.


Ella Fitzgerald - Billie Holiday is one of the main collaborations of Lady Day. She also performed with Ben Webster, Benny Goodman, Roy Eldridge, Johnny Hodges or Jonah Jones. Her high reputation as a black jazz singer is also due to the work she performed with important jazz personalities such as Lester Young, Count Basie and Artie Shaw.

In addition, another jazz legend also had the opportunity to collaborate with her performances. Louis Armstrong, with the song "Do you know what it means to miss" (New Orleans, 1947), and where a plethora of artists such as Arthur Lubin, Zutty Singleton, Barney Bigard, Kid Ory, Bud Scott, Red Callender & Charlie Beal participated.


Holiday left a wide discographic production, in which both singles and albums stand out, as well as collaborations with other artists. Here is a selection of her discography:

1947 Billie Holiday – Teddy Wilson 

1947 A Hot Jazz Classic 

1947 Distinctive Song Stylings 

1949 Teddy Wilson And His Orchestra Featuring Billie Holiday 

1950 An Evening With Eddie Heywood and Billie Holiday 

1950 Ella, Lena and Billie 

1950 Billie Holiday Sings 

1951 Favorites 

1951 Lover Man 

1952 Billie Holiday Sings

1953 An Evening with Billie Holiday

1954 Billie Holiday and Teddy Wilson Orchestras

1954 Lady Day

1955 A Collection of Classic Jazz Interpretations By Billie Holiday 

1955 Music For Torching

1956 Recital By Billie Holiday

1956 Solitude

1956 Hall Of Fame Series 

1956 Velvet Mood

1956 Billie Holiday at JATP

1956 The Lady Sings

1956 Billie Holiday Lady Sings the Blues

1957 Ella Fitzgerald - Billie Holiday at Newport

1957 Sound of Jazz

1958 Billie Holiday Lady in Satin

1958 The Blues Are Brewin'

1958 Lover Man

1958 Billie Holiday Stay with me

1959 Seven Ages of Jazz

1959 The Unforgettable Lady Day


Among her most emblematic productions are "Strange fruit", considered a denunciation against the racism of the time; "My man", which reflects the stormy love relationships of the artist; "Gloomy Sunday", a song considered by herself as a cursed song; "God bless the child", a reflection of the poverty that surrounded her and was latent throughout her life. Also included in this list is "All of me Billie Holiday".

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