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On this Day: Billie “Lady Day” Holiday Was Born

Photo: Billie Holiday, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, © Herman Leonard Photography LLC 

On this day Billie Holiday (1915-1959), considered one of the greatest jazz vocalists of all time, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. While Lady Day’s early years were riddled with difficulties, she found comfort in singing along to the recordings of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.

Holiday was discovered by John Hammond at the age of 18 while performing a set at a Harlem club. Hammond connected her to clarinet and bandleader Benny Goodman, with whom she recorded her first commercial record “Your Mother’s Son-In-Law” and the 1934 hit “Riffin’ the Scotch.”

Gif: Billie Holiday Singing 

Known for her unique phrasing and expressive voice, Holiday would go to sing to with the Count Basie orchestra and 1938 she became the first African-American woman to work with the all-white Artie Shaw orchestra.

Holiday recorded her signature ballad “Strange Fruit” while on a solo engagement at New York’s Café Society. The song’s powerful narrative about the lynching of African-Americans got it banned from radio stations. Ironically, this strong response helped the record become a national hit.

Video: Billie Holiday Singing “Strange Fruit” 

While achieving stardom for her musical and cinematic contributions, Holiday’s personal struggle with alcohol and substance abuse led to a series of drawbacks. After appearing in a film with her musical hero Louis Armstrong in 1947, she was convicted for narcotics possession and served just over a year in jail. Addiction remained a factor after jail, damaging her voice and ultimately causing her death in 1959.

Video: Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong singing “The Blues are Brewin” 

Holiday’s funeral was attended by over 3,000 people, including jazz royalty such as Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Tony Scott, Buddy Rogers, and John Hammond. With a posthumous 1961 vote to the Down Beat Hall of Fame and Columbia’s restoration of 100 of her greatest early records, her recognition as a jazz great resurged. In 1976, her 1941 recording of “God Bless the Child” was added to the Grammy Hall of Fame. Holiday later received an additional 22 Grammy wins and nominations and in 2000 she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.