Eleanora Fagan
"Billie Holiday"

(1915 - 1959)

In just a short lifetime, Ms. Billie Holiday overcame the challenges of a poverty-stricken childhood to become one of the nation's most famous female African American jazz musicians. During the 1930's and 40's, she famously asserted her talents to raise the social and political consciousness of black society, particularly with her melodic protests against domestic violence and lynching practices across the south.

Ms. Holiday grew up in East Baltimore with a life complicated by poverty and racism. Her mother later moved their family to New York City around 1927. Ms. Holiday lived through the Depression by working many low paying cleaning jobs and listening to early African American artists such as Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. With her early life shaped by hard work and great music, she found Harlem an exciting and stimulating place to work and express herself. John Hammond first discovered Ms. Holiday in 1933 while she was singing in Monette's, a Harlem nightclub. In November of the same year, at just eighteen years old, she recorded her first commercial session with Benny Goodman's group at Columbia Records.

Ms. Holiday remained in Harlem for a few more years before she returned to the studio in 1935 to embark on her career. After displaying her emotional and creative talent with early jazz pianist Teddy Wilson and his orchestra, Ms. Holiday was nicknamed "Lady Day" by orchestra member Lester Young. In 1938, Ms. Holiday joined Artie Shaw's Orchestra, one of America's first racially integrated bands, having an all white band and a black female lead singer; however, many venues were uncomfortable with her unique musical style and declined their performance. Ms. Holiday resigned from the band in 1939 to join the integrated entertainers at the famous Cafe Society in New York City, where she became famous for her performance of "Strange Fruit." This well-known piece emotionally describes the brutality of public lynching in America. The performance not only marked her high point as an accomplished musician but it also advanced her as an advocate for members of her race who faced racism daily. Ms. Holiday risked her career to record "Strange Fruit" on the Commodore label, which led to her continued advocacy against racial violence and for social equality throughout her lifetime.

With a flourishing career, Ms. Holiday wrote "God Bless the Child," another masterpiece that sealed her destiny in the music industry throughout the 1940's and into the 1950's. Ms. Holiday's talent helped her prosper during Jim Crowism. She enjoyed access to some of the best labels, orchestras, and song choices; she toured America and Europe. Ms. Holiday released an autobiography in 1956 and her last performance was in 1959 in New York City. The commotion of her life experience, particularly with racism, sexism, and industry, finally took a toll on her health. Though genuine pain and frustration gave life to her music, it ultimately took her life in l959 at the young age of forty-four.

Since her death, Ms. Holiday's popularity has grown, stemming from both her creative talents and advocacy for her race. Diana Ross portrayed the famous Ms. Holiday in the biographical film Lady Sings the Blues (1972). She received the Grammy's lifetime achievement award (1987). The United States Postal Service commemorated her groundbreaking African American musical career with a stamp in 1994. In 2000, The Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame inducted Ms. Holiday. The National Portrait Gallery also celebrates Ms. Holiday's accomplishments among other exemplary role models in a temporary 2007-08 "Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits" exhibition. Baltimore, Maryland eternally celebrates her life as part of its extensive African American history with a statue that is located in the Druid Hill Park area. Further, Ms. Holiday remains a present-day inspiration to the many contestants that participate in the Billie Holiday Vocal Competition held annually during Baltimore's Artscape celebration.

Biography courtesy of the Maryland Commission for Women, 2008.

© Copyright Maryland State Archives, 2008