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Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday

“All dope can do for you is kill you . . . the long, hard way. And it can kill the people you love right along with you.”

Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan Gough on April 7, 1915, in Baltimore. Holiday’s mother, Sadie, lived a transient life. Finding work where she could, she frequently left Holiday with family while she pursued jobs on passenger railroads. During a childhood that saw her shuffled around to different family members, Holiday frequently skipped school and, was taken to juvenile court and ordered to reform school. Nine months later at age 10, she was released into the care of her mother, who had opened a small restaurant. After working long hours with her mother, Holiday soon dropped out of school.

At age 11, she was raped by a neighbor. Although the neighbor was arrested, Holiday was sent into protective custody as a state witness in the case. Nearly a year later, she was released.

In 1927, she heard her first recordings of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong while working in a brothel as an errand girl. Two years later, she followed her mother, who had moved to Harlem, New York.

The young lady sings

She began singing at nightclubs in Harlem. She changed her stage name to Billie, after an actress she admired, Billie Dove. After changing her first name and the spelling of her last name a few times, she settled on “Holiday.” Teaming up with a neighborhood tenor sax player between 1929 and 1931, they toured the Harlem nightclub circuit.

Holiday’s singing career blossomed by the time she turned 17. She was performing at a club on West 132nd Street when a record producer in the audience saw her singing and was impressed by her style and delivery. A year later, the producer arranged for Holiday to make her recording debut. She recorded two songs, one of which, “Riffin’ the Scotch,” became her first hit. She was 18.

Holiday made at least 100 recordings on the Verve label from 1952 to 1959. She also toured Europe during this period. She was the first African-American singer to perform with a white band, Artie Shaw and his orchestra and she toured with Count Basie and his band.

In 2000, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Holiday died in her hospital room on July 17, 1959, at age 44.



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