Did You Know Jazz Vocalist, Billie Holiday, Was Born on This Day?

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This Day In History: April 7th

Legendary jazz vocalist, Billie Holiday, spent her two decade career singing songs of love, protest and relationships to national and international audiences. “Lady Day” captured crowds and solidified her status as an influential jazz singer with songs such as “Strange Fruit” (1939), “All of Me” (1941) and “I’ll Be Seeing You”(1944).

Eleanora Fagan Gough was born on April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She spent much of her childhood in Baltimore, Maryland with her teenage mother. However, by the end of the 1920s the family relocated to New York City in search of better job opportunities. Soon after moving and being exposed to the jazz scene, she was discovered by producer John Hammond

Hammond introduced her to bandleader Benny Goodman and the two recorded songs together such as “Your Mother’s Son-In-Law” (1934) and “Riffin’ the Scotch” (1934). She also adopted the stage name Billie Holiday from actress Billie Dove. Holiday’s career began to advance and she partnered with tenor sax player Lester Young. The duo became close friends and gave each other the nicknames of  “Lady Day” and “The Prez”. 

She had the opportunity to join Count Basie’s Orchestra for tours in 1937 and in 1938 Artie Shaw invited her to be a part of his Orchestra. She became the first black woman to work with a white band. During this time, she heard the poem “Strange Fruit,” which told the story of lynching in the South.

Holiday recorded her rendition of the poem and it was an early protest song of the Civil Rights Movement. She released “Strange Fruit” against the wishes of her record label, but it became a staple within her catalog of work. The song also made her a target of Henry Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. The famed singer battled with childhood trauma and substance abuse all while doubling on stage as a stellar jazz performer. Anslinger used Holiday’s addiction against her with the aim of pressuring her to stop performing “Strange Fruit.” 

Despite warnings, Holiday continued to perform the song and her popularity increased. She scored another hit in 1944 with the song, “God Bless the Child” and followed it up with the single “Lover Man.” Holiday also diversified her portfolio and appeared alongside her idol Louis Armstrong in the 1947 film New Orleans

Holiday decided to tell her story to the world in the autobiography Lady Sings the Blues (1956). Two years later, she recorded Lady in Satin (1958) and gave her final performance in New York City on May 25, 1959. She died soon after on July 17, 1959 and more than 3,000 people attended her funeral.

Her life has been transformed into two films, Lady Sings the Blue (1972) and The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021). Her legacy was also honored with an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. 

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