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Billie Holiday, also known as "Lady Day," is said to be one of the greatest American jazz singers of her time. She stood out in the jazz industry due to her unconventional music styles and improvisation. Although she was faced with many hardships throughout both her life and career, Holiday will always be remembered as a very influential figure in the jazz music industry. She was known to bring life to her music and always performed music the way she wanted to, even if others did not agree. She is best known for her songs "Lover Man" and "Strange Fruit" as well as her many collaborations with various famous jazz musicians. The historical marker located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania serves as a tribute to her accomplishments in the jazz industry.

Billie Holiday pictured in 1943

Forehead, Face, Smile, Lip

Billie Holiday performing at New York City jazz club in 1947

Microphone, Black, Flash photography, Musician

Image of Billie Holiday's Historical Marker located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Cloud, Sky, Daytime, Building

Billie Holiday was born under the name Eleanora Fagan on April 7,1915 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her parents are Sarah Julia "Sadie" Fagan and Clarence Halliday. Her father, Clarence Halliday, also known as Clarence "Holiday", was a professional jazz musician for the Fletcher Henderson band. However, shortly after Billie was born, Clarence left his family to pursue his career as a musician and Billie moved to Baltimore, Maryland where she was raised by her mother. During this time period Billie Holiday was faced with a difficult childhood. She was left to spend much of her childhood alone and at the age of eleven Billie Holiday dropped out of school in order to help her mother with her restaurant that she had just opened.1 Eventually, Holiday and her mother moved to Harlem, New York. However, shortly after the move her mother was arrested for prostitution and Holiday herself was a victim of sex trafficking before the age of fourteen.2

In order to make ends meet, as a young teen in 1929, Holiday began working various jobs to support herself but eventually found a job performing at a Harlem nightclub.3 She originally was looking for work as a dancer at a Harlem club called Pod's and Jerry's however, when there were no openings for a dancer she decided to try singing.2 Even though Holiday never received formal singing lessons, she was said to have had natural instincts when it came to music.3 Her audition impressed the owner so much that he gave her the job.This marked the starting point of Holiday's career and lead to her performing at various Harlem jazz clubs.2 She partnered with saxophone player, Kenneth Hollan, and they performed together from 1929-1931 at clubs such as Pod's and Jerry's, Grey Dawn and Brooklyn Elk's Club. During this time, she took her professional name, Billie Holiday, which was inspired by both her favorite actress, Billie Dove, and her father's performing name, "Holiday".1

In 1933, Holiday had her first break through when producer, John Hammond, watched one of her performances at a New York club called Covan's. Hammond was so impressed by Holiday's music talents stating, "Her singing almost changed my music tastes and my musical life, because she was the first girl singer I'd come across who actually sang like an improvising jazz genius."1 Throughout the decade with Hammond's help, Holiday was able to start working with various famous jazz musicians such as Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, and Duke Ellington. During this time she also worked with a saxophonist, Lester Young, whom was Holiday's close friend and is credited with giving her the famous nickname of "Lady Day."2 In November of 1933, at the age of nineteen, Holiday worked with Benny Goodman and recored her first two songs, "Your Mother's Son-in-Law" and "Riffin' the Scotch."1

Holiday continued making music however, in 1939, her career changed when she was introduced to "Strange Fruit", a song based on a poem about racial prejudice and lynching. Holiday stated that she felt such a strong passion to perform this song because it reminded her of how her father passed away after being denied medical treatment as a result of racism. However, the record label she was working for at the time, Columbia Records, found the song to be too controversial. Therefore, she ended up recording it with Commodore Records, and even though it did not get any airtime, Holiday stated that it "became my biggest-selling record." 1After the first performance of the song, "Strange Fruit", Holiday received a warning from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics to never perform the song again however, she refused to obey these demands.5 Holiday's popularity kept increasing and eventually in 1944 she signed with Decca Records. During this time she recorded another hit song, "Lover Man." This song lead to her becoming well known in the pop community and created opportunity for solo performances, which was rare for jazz musicians at this time.1

In 1947, Holiday's career as a jazz musician was reaching an all time time. However, on May 16,1947 Billie Holiday was arrested after police had found her with possession of narcotics. On May 27, 1947, Holiday was sent to court on account of these charges and she stated, "It was called 'The United States of America versus Billie Holiday.' And that's just they way it felt." She plead guilty to the charges which resulted in her being sentenced to Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia. Additionally, she lost the right to her New York City Cabaret Card which meant she could no longer perform at any venue that served alcohol. On March 16, 1948 Holiday was released from prison before her sentence was finished due to good behavior. 1

Holiday's struggles with abusing alcohol and drugs continued throughout the 1950s. This induced not only a decline in her physical health but also had detrimental effects on her ability to perform. In 1959, Billie Holiday was diagnosed with cirrhosis, also known as liver disease and was being treated at Metropolitan Hospital in New York. However, even as she was fighting for her life in the hospital, Holiday's room was raided for drug possession. This final attack against Billie Holiday by The Federal Bureau of Narcotics was said to be done under the order of Harry J. Anslinger, who was said to be an openly racist government official. It is noted that Anslinger had been targeting Holiday ever since her first performance of the controversial song "Strange Fruit."1 The Federal Bureau of Narcotics reportedly found less than one-eighth of an ounce of heroin in her room. As a result they placed her room under strict police supervision, handcuffed her to her hospital bed, and confiscated her personal items such as her record player, comic books, radio, and magazines. They also restricted her ability to receive any visitors. Holiday is said to have not blamed the individual police agents for this treatment instead, she blamed the drug war as it resulted in treating the ill like criminals.4 On July 17, 1959, Billie Holiday died at the age of forty-four due to a pulmonary edema and heart failure.1

[1]Billie Holiday , Wikipedia . Accessed May 16th 2021.

[2]Billie Holiday - About the Singer , PBS. Accessed May 16th 2021.

[3]Billie Holiday, Britannica. Accessed May 18th 2021.

[4]Hari, Johann. The Hunting of Billie Holiday, January 17th 2015. Accessed May 16th 2021.

[5]Billie Holiday, Biography . Accessed May 19th 2021.

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