Billie Holiday, born over a century ago, was one of the best jazz singers of all time. Even with her limited vocal range she used her unique timing and framing to create an amazing mellow sound with the ability to move her listeners.
“I don’t think I ever sing the same way twice. The blues is sort of a mixed-up thing. You just have to feel it. Anything I do sing is part of my life.” was the way she described her approach to performing. (http://www.cbsnews.com/news/passage-billie-holiday/)
Born Eleanora Fagan Gough, Billie was raised in poverty and was sent to a facility for troubled girls when she was 9 years old. They say she dropped out of school in the fifth grade and found a job running errands in a brothel, but later was arrested for prostitution.
When she was 18 years old she was discovered by producer John Hammond and in 1933 she made her first record, which was followed later by a commercial recording session with Benny Goodman. Five years later she paired with Artie Shaw a clarinetist, composer and bandleader, becoming the first black woman to work with a white orchestra.
Billie sang her most controversial song about the lynching of a black man, Strange Fruit, at the Cafe Society in 1939, which was New York’s first integrated nightclub. Being banned by some radio stations because of its subject matter, only made it more popular. Strange Fruit was honored by the Library of Congress in 2002 as one of the 50 songs to be added to the National Recording Registry.
Unfortunately in 1947 she was arrested for possession of narcotics and was sentenced to a year and a day in a federal rehabilitation facility. Because of her time in prison Billie could no longer obtain a license to play in cabarets and clubs which were the most fitting venues for her music style.
She did eventually get to play in Club Ebony in New York, thanks to the help of the owner, John Levy, who became her boyfriend and manager. She would wear white gardenia in her hair and would often sing with her head tilted back, both of which became her trademarks.
In 1948 she sang to a sold-out audience in Carnegie Hall and received three curtain calls. Her final performance was in New York City in 1959 as she died later that year of a drug and alcohol related heart attack at the young age of 44. Even though she was considered one of the highest paid performers of her era, when she died her life savings were only $750, most of her earnings going towards supporting her addiction.
Billie Holiday was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2011.