One of America’s greatest jazz singers, her audience experienced the depth of feeling she gave to the genre. Even a novice could recognize her unique sound and she is considered perhaps the most revolutionary jazz singer of all time. Melancholy renditions of the song “Strange Fruit,” have been sung for decades. A song that spoke to the terrible atrocities committed against her people, the lynching of African American’s. The song is considered the race’s first political protest piece. With a career that spanned nearly three decades Holiday will be remember for her time spent in the light of her music and not in the darkness of alcoholism and drug addiction. Addiction that finally took her life at the young age of 44.
American jazz and swing music singer Billie Holiday had an estimated net worth of $750 dollars at the time of her death, in 1959. Or about $7,450 adjusted for inflation. “Lady Day” was a major influence on jazz music and pop singing as well as a voice for African American people nationwide.
Like a Motherless Child
Her parents’ chance meeting at a carnival spawned one of America’s most impactful jazz singers. Born African American and Irish descent, she was originally named Elinore Harris (which became “Eleanora”). Her mother, Sarah ‘Sadie’ Fagan, was just 19 years old and they lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her father, Clarence Holiday, was only 17 years old. They were never married.
Over the years Billie’s father became an alcoholic and was mostly absent from her life. He was also a jazz musician who played in the popular Fletcher Henderson band in the 1920s. He was so absent from her life that allegedly he even denied paternity of her until she became famous.
Sadie, Billie’s mother, had been abused by her family for having become pregnant. Eventually she was kicked out of her parents’ home and moved to Philadelphia. Despite Sadie also having been born illegitimately, as the story goes, she was thrown out by her very religious family for having becoming pregnant and giving birth out of wedlock.
As a struggling teenage mother Sadie arranged for Billie to stay in Baltimore with Ava Miller who was Sadie’s older half-sister. Sadie got work anywhere she could which finally meant working on passenger trains.
The only problem was that because Ava was just married she did not want to care for baby Billie and so sent her to her mother-in-law, Martha Miller or “Grandma Miller”. Billie grew to hate “Grandma Miller” and also resent her mother for not being able to take care of her. Of course times were tough and money scarce and so Sadie was doing only what she could.
With Clarence Holiday long gone, probably at the bottom of a bottle. Sadie married 25-year-old longshoreman Philip Gough, in 1920. Fortunately for Billie she respected her new stepdad and also enjoyed that he could properly provide for herself and mother. It was a sad day when, three years later, Gough left. Ending the marriage and leaving the mother and daughter with rent payment in arrears. They were forced to move out.
All of a sudden, Billie was back with Martha Miller and Sadie was back to work on the railroad.
After Gough walked out on Billie and her mother Sadie. Billie began to act out and not attend school. In January 1925 she was was brought before Judge Williams for truancy. Being just 9 years old at the time the magistrate deemed her a minor without proper care and guardianship.
This led Billie Holiday to being sent to a Catholic reformatory, the House of the Good Shepherd for Colored Girls. There she was the youngest of any of the other girls and given the name “Madge”. For a long cold nine months she was held before being released back into her mother Sadie’s care in October 1925.
Sadie soon after opened a soul food restaurant called the East Side Grille. The plan was good but even working long hard hours the money was never enough. It may have caused Billie some angst about the way things are and earning a living; soon she dropped out of school completely at age 11.
Billie’s care and guardianship by Sadie were once again called into question when, on December 26, 1926, Billie was raped by a neighbor, Wilbert Rich. Billie was again sent to the House of the Good Shepherd for protection, Wilbert was arrested and therein started the rape case.
Even though Billie was 11 years old. The jury found Wilbert Rich guilty of “Rape of a Minor 14-16,” and he was sentenced to just three months jail time.
Times were as tough as ever and Sadie had moved to Harlem, New York in the hopes of finding new opportunities. Billie was young and confused and recovering from abuse.
At 13 years old Billie Holiday was earning a living for herself running errands for Alice Dean at a nearby brothel. She performed various chores in the parlor. She was soon hearing jazz singers such as Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.
Many would consider that Billie used jazz early on to soothe her spirit and let go of traumatic stress. She recovered well and the singing style that she began hearing on a regular basis would form the base of her life and influence her later career.
Billie Holiday grew up fast; she was smoking, drinking and began singing at local clubs for tips. Not only that. She also began offering sexual services considering this a faster and better way to earn a living, rather than toiling like her ol’ mother.
Billie had a strong spirit and was allegedly beaten by some of the men that she used to see. It may have established a pattern of acceptance of violent abuse that was also seen in her later years.
In early 1929 Billie left Baltimore and was reunited again with her mother Sadie in New York. Sadie was living none of the wild night-lifestyle that Billie had been back in Philadelphia. She had been working as a maid and soon Billie was working by her side.
Then the Great Depression hit and there was no work for them at all. Desperate to make ends meet it was now Sadie and Billie who were together working as prostitutes for a service charge of $3. Or about $50 dollars today. Of course the buying power of the dollar was far greater in 1929 and goods and services would have also been cheaper in Harlem than other areas in New York.
Then on May 2, 1929, both mother and daughter were arrested during a police operation that landed them at a hard labor workhouse. Sadi was released after two months but Bille was kept there for a full five months.
Making a Living
When she was finally released 15-year-old Bille Holiday went looking for a dancing job. She didn’t find one but was asked if she could sing. As it turns out Bille had a beautiful voice, perhaps all that hardship had made her sound so soulful.
It wasn’t long before she was singing six nights per week at “Trav’lin’ All Alone,” and being paid $1 per night to do it. That was in 1930 and so is is the equivalent of about $17 in 2022, a good wage for her age and during the Great Depression and inflation aside, I believe I am correct in saying, one could still buy more for their money in 1930.
Soon after she began to earn even more money by singing at different clubs that specifically wanted her to perform. We estimate that she could have earned as much as $50 per night (inflation-adjusted) doing this and soon took the professional name of “Billie Holiday”.
The name was put together by her taking her favorite movie star Billie Dove’s first name “Billie”. While retaining her father’s last name “Holiday” which she liked.
Beginning a Career
Billie began filling in for the trending artists at the time at a Harlem nightclub called Monette’s. There she was eventually discovered by record mogul John Hammond. Hammond was deeply impacted by her soulful style and the emotion captured in her delivery. Before long he was getting Billie booked in all of the finest clubs in New York.
With the Benny Goodman Orchestra Billie Holiday made three recordings for her first record. Now 18 years old, her first recording was in 1933 on Columbia’s label with “Your Mother’s Son-in-Law.”
By 1935 Billie Holiday had already collaborated with some of the top jazz artists in New York. New York was a thriving place for young artists to come and showcase their skills, and the still teenage Billie Holiday was already considered one of the top upcoming jazz singers around.
Hammond paired Holiday with the popular jazz pianist Teddy Wilson. In 1935, together they began making many recordings and life was fruiting in ways that Billie could probably never have imagined.
At that same time Billie sang in legendary bandleader Duke Ellington Paramount short film, Symphony in Black, helping to further progress her budding career.
Billie met tenor saxophonist Lester Young at the Cotton Club in March 1935. With Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra Young had already made quite an impression in the jazz community. Then agin in 1937, Billie was recording with the great Count Basie’s orchestra, an orchestra which Young played with regularity.
Soon Young began living with Billie and her mother Sadie for a short while and gave Billie the name “Duchess” and Sadie the name “Lady.” Billie however preferred the name Lady and soon began calling herself “Lady Day”.
Between the years of 1935 and 1942 Billie Holiday or “Lady Day” was recording all the time. Together with Young, the two created what have become recognized as some of the greatest jazz recordings of all time.
As her wealth increased, by 1942, Holiday was a rich young woman with a net worth equivalent to a modern day $150 thousand. She became a dog lover and acquired some of the finest specimens, including a Great Dane, two chihuahuas and a poodle. However chief among her pets was a boxer named Mister who could be seen walking with Billie while dressed in a mink coat.
On Her Own
In March 1938 Billie began performing with Artie Shaw’s orchestra in Madison Square Garden. This began as a set gig in a single location but grew into a tour of the South that was still very segregated at the time. It was an incredible symbol for a black woman to be singing and traveling with an all-white orchestra, and it was twists like these that changed how people viewed African American’s in the United States.
However as progressive as it was and how good it may have been for the movement, Holiday still encountered unbelievable racial hatred. After a while the discrimination became too great when she was no longer allowed to enter the front door with the rest of the band, instead being made to enter a side door. She quit touring and returned to New York.
A new interracial club in New York’s Greenwich Village called Cafe Society was where Holiday headlined as a solo act in 1939. She was 24 years old by this time and having been singing on stage for many years now, had developed a well tuned stage persona. Including wearing gardenias in her hair and singing with her head tilted back.
Lewis Allan wrote two songs that would become some of Billie Holiday’s most well known and praised. They were “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit” and they were harrowing song about the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. Two African American men in Marion, Indiana in August 1930.
John Hammond opposed the songs becoming part of Holiday’s act and instead tried to persuade her to keep to her delicateness and not speak to political issues. Especially racially charged issues that could put her out of business, or worse. However Holiday would not be talked down and would risk life and livelihood to deliver songs that would begin to change how people viewed African American’s. It was acts like that of Billie Holiday’s that slowly chipped away at opinions that black men and women were not equal to their white counterparts.
While “Strange Fruit” stirred controversy in racist America, she got through it. However at first she could not find a record label to release the song because her label, Columbia, refused to. Instead the song was eventually released on the Commodore label, however still many radio stations refused to play it.
Life Imitating Art
At this time in American history for black people, especially black singers, there was a lot of hatred and on several occasions Holiday was forced to leave the stage because of hecklers and even racial attacks. The racism became so bad anywhere else that soon she retired to singing almost exclusively in New York during the 1940s.
Holiday was known for her deep songs about hopelessness and one sided love. Many would point to her personal life being the source of her trueness on the subject. She seemed to find herself with men who would steal from her, beat her and lead her astray.
Finally, she marred James Monroe in 1941. It was he who introduced her to hard drugs, including heroin. Monroe was the first of many men who history records as contributing to Holiday’s downfall.
In 1945 Holiday had an affair with trumpet player Joe Guy, and with it more heroin and heartbreak. Billie’s mother, Sadie, died in October 1945. Billie was so deep on drugs that she arrived late and disheveled to her mother’s funeral.
The 1940s, at least musically, were very successful for Holiday. She even performed at the Metropolitan Opera House making history in the progress, the first ever black woman to perform there.
Holiday signed with Decca Records in 1944 and up until 1950 this label is credited as having released some of her very best music. Including “Lover Man” in 1945 which was met by major commercial success.
That same year Holiday performed with Norman Granz and the Jazz Philharmonic Orchestra, in Hollywood. Then in 1946 teaming up with her idol Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, Billie played a maid in the movie, New Orleans. In it, Holiday sang “Do You Know What It Means” and “Blues are Brewin’.”
Sadie’s passing at just 49 years old clearly shocked young Billie and her successful career seemed meaningless in comparison many speculate. Her drug fueled depression increased and soon, Holiday attempted suicide by jumping from a train.
Beginning of the End
After drugs were found in her apartment Holiday was arrested on May 27, 1947. She was soon after convicted of narcotics possession and sentenced to a year and a day in jail. Released early, in March 1948, for good behavior. Billie Holiday returned to her music career only to discover that her cabaret license had been revoked. She was now banned from singing in nightclubs or any venue that served alcohol.
It all worked out for her however when in less than a fortnight from being released, Holiday was giving a performance at Carnegie Hall. It was sold out and it was her very best.
However on January 22, 1949, Holiday was arrested with manager John Levy at a hotel in Los Angeles for possessessing opium. While the charges were in effect she could not work at all. However she was acquitted six months later on June 3, 1949.
Sliding ever deeper into alcoholism and drugs, Holiday continued to record for another 12 years but her choices in the 1940s would echo into the 1950s.
Lady Sings the Blues
With a health that was deteriorating and at times markings of drug abuse on her body, her voice began to faulter. Holiday was well warned through life circumstances; including several close calls with narcotics agents, arrests and many more health scares. She had lost most of her money, the men in her life had since walked out with much of it and hospital fees took up much of the rest. She did continue to record even through her darkest times, collaborating with Norman Granz’s Verve Records once again in 1952. However for many, what was coming was written on the wall.
In the mid-1950s, Holiday toured finding success in Europe in 1954. Many note that, while well received, her performances lacked the vitality they once possessessed.
Soon she was running out of money despite her earnings. In 1956, she worked with William Dufty to pen her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues. However the book is considered to be largely inaccurate and come from a time when Holiday was in drug states and the author may not have been able to ascertain the truth and so wrote it as is.
Out of Time
After a string of abusive men in her life, Holiday began a relationship with Louis McKay in 1956. They were later married in Mexico in 1957.
In 1958, Holiday gave a much applauded performance with Lester Young on CBS TV’s The Sound of Jazz. It would however be their final act together.
“Lady in Satin” was recorded that same year for Columbia, with Ray Ellis’ 40-piece orchestra. She also performed on British television, it would likewise be her final one.
On May 31, 1959, Holiday found herself back in New York’s Metropolitan Hospital. This time however diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and heart disease. Right up until her last moments she had relied on opiates. In fact, Holiday’s hospital room was raided and she was arrested for possession. Under police guard on July 17, 1959, Billie Holiday died of heart, kidney, and liver failure brought on by alcoholism and drug use.
Billie Holiday’s incredible journey, making her way in life through oppression all around forged her voice and her personality. Her deep and mysterious style coupled with a hopelessness, made for highly emotive performances. Unforgotten by anyone fortunate enough to have witnessed her live. She became the inspiration for jazz singers all over the world and even today, she is considered one of the greatest of all time.
More than three thousand people attended her funeral to make their blessings and pay their respects. Recording artists, jazz musicians, backup singers, and a section of her local audience were all there to honor the great Lady Day.
Posthumously Holiday was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame (1979); Blues Hall of Fame (1991); Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2000); Grammy Hall of Fame for God Bless the Child, Strange Fruit, Lover Man, and Lady in Satin.
In 1972, the Lady Sings the Blues film was released. An autobiographical movie based on the book starring Diana Ross as Lady Day.
Billie Holiday was awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on April 7, 1986, what would have been her 71st birthday. She was ranked #6 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Women of Rock and Roll.
Holiday came up harder than just about any other artist in history. Raped, racially abused, subjected to poverty and yet she triumphed all to become one of the most impactful voices in American history.
Despite earning an estimated inflation-adjusted $500 thousand during her career. By the time of her passing on July 17, 1959 there was only 70 cents in her bank account and a $750 tabloid fee strapped to her leg.