A snapshot biography of Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday

“When you’re poor, you grow up fast.” – Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan in 1915, the daughter of unwed teenage parents; her mother was thirteen years old, her father 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 the mother-in-law of her aunt, 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. At the brothel, instead of taking money for her work, she asked to listen to Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith on the victrola, spending hours with the music.  

After her release from prison and in need of 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. 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 cirrhosis of the liver at forty-four years old.

In reflecting about Billie, a musician said, “she was the nicest woman in the world, you know. All she wanted to do was sing.”


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. / 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) / Photograph taken circa 1947 by William P. Gottlieb, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (Wikimedia Commons)