Billie Holiday (real name Eleanora Fagan) is one of the most celebrated jazz and swing music singers of all time. Through her jazz-inspired vocal style, Holiday pioneered a new way of manipulating tempo and phrasing. Her ability to improvise on a dime made her a success all around the world.
Holiday sharpened her skills in nightclubs in Harlem before signing a recording contract with Brunswick Records. She experienced success with other labels, but by the 1940s, drug abuse and legal troubles threatened to derail her career. However, she sold out arenas and headlined successful tours throughout the 40s and 50s until she died in 1959.
Billie Holiday died aged 44 due to complications brought by liver cirrhosis
Billie Holiday was born on 7th April 1915 to teenage couple Sadie Fagan and Clarence Halliday. Clarence abandoned the family to pursue a career in jazz, leaving Billie under the care of Sadie. Fagan faced a tough life after eviction from her family’s home due to the pregnancy. She was mostly absent from Billie’s early life as she spent a lot of her time working.
By 1929, Billie had dropped out of school and moved with her mom to Harlem, New York. Holiday started singing in nightclubs in Harlem in her early teens. Her breakthrough came after she was discovered by producer John Hammond while performing in a jazz club. The discovery heralded the start of her rise as a musician, and the beginning of her drug-induced decline.
Billie’s love for alcohol was well known, but she largely managed to keep it under control. Unfortunately, her marriage to James Monroe introduced her to opium. The couple divorced, but Holiday’s dependency on opium stuck with her. She then started dating trumpeter Joe Guy, who introduced her to heroin.
Holiday’s drinking and drug use increased exponentially after the death of her mother in October 1945. Another thrill sought insistently by Billie was sex. John Simmons, a bassist who played with Holiday, did drugs, and had sex with her, described Billie as a ‘sex machine’ in an interview played in the documentary Billie. John said:
“And, I was walking in the door, she was walking out the door with a chick. But the next night, she collected me. She would go off with a chick, or something like that; she’d probably make them perform a three-ring circus. After that she’d probably go off and get a prostitute. She was a sex machine.”
Holiday dated club owner John Levey before marrying Louis McKay a year after they were arrested for narcotics in 1956. Like most men in Holiday’s life, Louis used her name to make money and advance himself. The drugs and alcohol took a toll on her body and voice, but she still managed to convey emotion in her 1958 album Lady in Satin.
On the advice of her doctor, Holiday temporarily quit drinking. She refused to go to the hospital despite her declining health, but in late May 1959, she had to be admitted for liver disease and heart disease. Billy Holiday passed away on 17th July 1959 due to complications caused by cirrhosis of the liver.
Many believe that the underlying cause of Billie’s death was persecution by men and the government
Billie Holiday didn’t have an easy upbringing. On top of the financial struggles, Billie was sexually assaulted as a young girl. “A lot of people just think of her addictions but don’t know about her upbringing,” Michele Smith, the manager of Billie’s estate, told The Guardian. “You cannot judge her without knowing who she really is.”
After she became famous, Billie dated a catalog of abusive and manipulative men. Despite the power they held over her, Billie sometimes fought back. In Billie, trombonist Melba Liston talks of one such fight back: “She hit him over the head with a Coke bottle or something and kinda laid his head open, and they both went to the hospital.”
Holiday died with next to nothing in her bank account, sucked dry by the men in her life. The biggest hindrance to Holiday’s success was, perhaps, the government. The rampant racism at the time meant that Billie wasn’t treated the same as white artists. She couldn’t sleep in the same hotels or even use the same entrances as them, lest she drew the ire of the white women who’d come to see her perform.
Billie put a target on her back when she released Strange Fruit, a lament against racially motivated lynching. Immediately after its release, Billie received her first threat from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, led by known racist Harry Anslinger. Harry hated jazz and the fact that African Americans enjoyed it and were good at making it.
The Bureau banned Billie from singing Strange Fruit. Holiday responded by vowing to sing it every time she performed. Authorities routinely persecuted her, allegedly for drug-related offenses. “From 1939 to her death in 1959 the government went after her because she was black, she was wealthy and she dared to sing Strange Fruit,” Smith adds.
“They made her public enemy number one and destroyed her life in a lot of ways.” The authorities pursued her to her death bed, raiding her hospital room and placing her under police guard. As Alex Godfrey of The Guardian put it, cirrhosis might have been the natural cause of Billie Holiday’s death, but two decades of persecution drove her to death.
Billie’s lasting legacy lies in her refusal to quit in the face of unrelenting adversity. “How did she take it?” Jonathan ‘Jo’ Jones is heard saying in Billie. “F*ck it! She’d go in and sing! Go and f*ck ‘em! She did what she did until she died.”