A snapshot biography of Billie Holiday

Snapshot biography of Billie Holiday

“I’ve been told that nobody sings the word ‘hunger’ like I do. Or the word ‘love.’”

Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan in 1915, the daughter of unwed teenage parents; her mother was thirteen years old, and her father was fifteen. Her father, a musician, left the family when Billie was a child, while her mother was often absent, working jobs that required travel.

Raised at times by her aunt’s mother-in-law, Billie had a difficult childhood. She was frequently beaten by a cousin, sent to reform school at nine, a survivor of attempted rape at eleven, employed running errands in a brothel at twelve, a victim of sex trafficking at thirteen, and arrested and sent to prison at fourteen.

Through all these experiences and others, Billie was in love with music and singing. “I used to love to sing all the time,” she would say. Instead of taking money for her work at the brothel, she asked to listen to Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith on the victrola, spending hours with the music.

After her release from prison and needing money, fourteen-year-old Billie looked for work as a dancer. During her audition at Pod and Jerry’s Log Cabin, she performed poorly in dance. Asked if she could sing, she impressed the owner, who hired her to perform as a singer.

More opportunities to perform came her way from Pod and Jerry’s Log Cabin. And over the years, she became well known, finding much success in her music career as a jazz singer, though always singing how she felt, never compromising a song to sell more.

But throughout her career, Billie struggled with drug and alcohol addiction. Arrested often, in 1950, she was barred from singing in any place that served alcohol because of her police record. From there, her health continued to deteriorate, and in 1959, Billie died of liver cirrhosis at forty-four years old.

Vintage promotional photograph of jazz singer Billie Holiday, featuring her looking to the side with a thoughtful expression. She wears a flower in her hair, pearl necklace, and earrings. Her signature is on the top left, expressing affection with the text 'Love always, Billie Holiday'.
Billie Holiday, circa 1940


“A snapshot biography of Billie Holiday” sources:

Holiday, Billie, William Dufty, and Vincent Pelote. Lady Sings the Blues. Ringwood, Vic: Penguin Books, 1992. / Devoe, Margaret. “Paying Back Debts: Billie Holiday.” Off Our Backs, vol. 3, no. 5, 1973, pp. 14–14. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25771723. Accessed 13 Apr. 2021. / “Billie Holiday.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billie_Holiday / Miles Davis, speaking with Julie Coryell in February 1978; as quoted in Jazz-Rock Fusion: The People, The Music (1978) by Coryell and Laura Friedman, p. 41 (Wikiquote) / “Lady Sings the Blues”. Billie Holiday’s autobiography, co-authored with William Dufty, published in 1956 – Wikiquote, Wikimedia Foundation, https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Billie_Holiday / Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture / “Photograph of Billie Holiday.” Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, 2013.46.25.90, https://nmaahc.si.edu/object/nmaahc_2013.46.25.90


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Please click here to read a snapshot biography of another singer, Ella Fitzgerald

To cite:

“A snapshot biography of Billie Holiday.” Published by Historical Snapshots, https://historicalsnaps.com/2021/04/13/a-snapshot-biography-of-billie-holiday/