Apr

01

One of the most innovative and influential vocalists in modern history, Eleanora Fagan (April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959), better-known as Billie Holiday and famously nicknamed Lady Day, shaped the evolution of jazz and pop music. With her distinctive vocal delivery, inspired by jazz instrumentation, and her innovative manipulation of tempo and phrasing, she ushered in a new era of singing, popularizing jazz and enthralling wider and wider audiences.

Yet Holiday’s life was a far cry from following a smooth upward trajectory into stardom.

Raised by a single mother and raped by her neighbor at the age of eleven, she spent her early teens running errands at a brothel in exchange for the chance to listen to Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith records. Shortly after her mother became a prostitute in Harlem, so did Eleanora. She was barely fourteen. But in the darkness of those early years, she somehow found the light that would guide her life. It was in Harlem that she first began singing at night clubs, taking her stage pseudonym from the names of actress Billie Dove and musician Clarence Halliday, the man she’d grown up considering her father. In November of 1933, at the age of 18, Holiday made her recording debut after the influential jazz producer and civil rights activist John Hammond found himself mesmerized by her voice at Covan’s club on West 132nd Street.

It took more than half a decade for Holiday to reach mainstream success, which she did in 1939 with her rendition of “Strange Fruit” — the highly political song based on a poem about a lynching written by Jewish schoolteacher Abel Meeropol. Holiday first performed it with great trepidation, partly in fear of political retaliation and partly because it reminded her of the injustice surrounding the death of her father, who she believed had been denied vital lung treatment due to racial bigotry.

Despite blossoming into critical acclaim, however, Holiday’s personal life was a whirlwind of turmoil. Openly bisexual, she bounced between numerous affairs with men and women, most notoriously with the glamorous Broadway actress Tallulah Bankhead. By the early 1940s, she was at the height of her career and was earning $1,000 per week, but had spiraled into addiction and was spending nearly all her income on drugs. Over the decade that followed, despite having become commercially successful, her drug use, drinking, and tumultuous relationships with abusive men gradually but steadily eroded both her health and her ability to ability to defend her professional standing as she was being progressively defrauded of her earnings.

Still, her talent and her passion for singing were never questioned. In 1958, Frank Sinatra called her “unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years.” The following year, Holiday’s addiction finally claimed her and she died of heart failure caused by alcoholism-induced liver cirrhosis. Though she only had $0.70 in the bank at the time of her death, her imprint on music history remains priceless and inextinguishable. In 1973, Holiday was posthumously inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, reminding us that talent and tragedy may go hand in hand but the height of the human spirit transcends the tragic.

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  22. littlemisswallflower reblogged this from topiecesdistractionetc and added:
    Wow this is so sad.
  23. pajarosurbanos reblogged this from thereconstructionists and added:
    Happy birthday, Billie Holiday!
  24. makerswomen reblogged this from thereconstructionists and added:
    Born Today 1915: Eleanora Fagan, better-known as Billie Holiday.
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