Lady Day

Billie Holiday was one of the most influential jazz singers of all time. She had a thriving career for many years before she lost her battle with addiction.Holiday spent much of her childhood in Baltimore, Maryland. Her mother, Sadie, was only a teenager when she had her. Her father is widely believed to be Clarence Holiday, who eventually became a successful jazz musician, playing with the likes of Fletcher Henderson.

Striking out on her own, Holiday performed at New York’s Café Society. She developed some of her trademark stage persona there — wearing gardenias in her hair and singing with her head tilted back.

During this engagement, Holiday also debuted two of her most famous songs, “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit.” Columbia, her record company at the time, was not interested in “Strange Fruit,” which was a powerful story about the lynching of African Americans in the South.

Holiday recorded the song with the Commodore label instead. “Strange Fruit” is considered to be one of her signature ballads, and the controversy that surrounded it — some radio stations banned the record — helped make it a hit.

Over the years, Holiday sang many songs of stormy relationships, including “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” and “My Man.” These songs reflected her personal romances, which were often destructive and abusive.

Holiday married James Monroe in 1941. Already known to drink, Holiday picked up her new husband’s habit of smoking opium. The marriage didn’t last — they later divorced — but Holiday’s problems with substance abuse continued.

Striking out on her own, Holiday performed at New York’s Café Society. She developed some of her trademark stage persona there — wearing gardenias in her hair and singing with her head tilted back.

During this engagement, Holiday also debuted two of her most famous songs, “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit.” Columbia, her record company at the time, was not interested in “Strange Fruit,” which was a powerful story about the lynching of African Americans in the South.

Holiday recorded the song with the Commodore label instead. “Strange Fruit” is considered to be one of her signature ballads, and the controversy that surrounded it — some radio stations banned the record — helped make it a hit.

Over the years, Holiday sang many songs of stormy relationships, including “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” and “My Man.” These songs reflected her personal romances, which were often destructive and abusive.

Holiday married James Monroe in 1941. Already known to drink, Holiday picked up her new husband’s habit of smoking opium. The marriage didn’t last — they later divorced — but Holiday’s problems with substance abuse continued.

She had a heroin addiction because she’d been chronically raped as a child and she was trying to deal with the grief and the pain of that,” Johann Hari, who wrote the book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, told WNYC. “And also, she was resisting white supremacy. And when she insisted on continuing on her right as an American citizen to sing ‘Strange Fruit,’ Anslinger resolves to destroy her.”

Anslinger was a widely known racist and made it his mission to take Holiday down for her drug and alcohol addiction and relentlessly pursued her all the way up until her death in 1959.

That same year, Holiday had a hit with “God Bless the Child.” She later signed with Decca Records in 1944 and scored an R&B hit the next year with “Lover Man.”

Her boyfriend at the time was trumpeter Joe Guy, and with him she started using heroin. After the death of her mother in October 1945, Holiday began drinking more heavily and escalated her drug use to ease her grief.

Despite her personal problems, Holiday remained a major star in the jazz world—and even in popular music as well. She appeared with her idol Louis Armstrong in the 1947 film New Orleans, albeit playing the role of a maid.

Unfortunately, Holiday’s drug use caused her a great professional setback that same year. She was arrested and convicted for narcotics possession in 1947. Sentenced to one year and a day of jail time, Holiday went to a federal rehabilitation facility in Alderson, West Virginia.

Released the following year, Holiday faced new challenges. Because of her conviction, she was unable to get the necessary license to play in cabarets and clubs. Holiday, however, could still perform at concert halls and had a sold-out show at the Carnegie Hall not long after her release.

Holiday also caught the public’s attention by sharing her life story with the world in 1956. Her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues (1956), was written in collaboration by William Dufty.

Some of the material in the book, however, must be taken with a grain of salt. Holiday was in rough shape when she worked with Dufty on the project, and she claimed to have never read the book after it was finished.

Around this time, Holiday became involved with Louis McKay. The two were arrested for narcotics in 1956, and they married in Mexico the following year. Like many other men in her life, McKay used Holiday’s name and money to advance himself.

Despite all of the trouble she had been experiencing with her voice, she managed to give an impressive performance on the television broadcast The Sound of Jazz with Ben Webster, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins.

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