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25 things you may not have known about Billie Holiday

PUBLISHED: 14:50 08 April 2018

Billie Holiday at the Downbeat club, a jazz club in New York City. Photo: William P.Gottlieb

Billie Holiday at the Downbeat club, a jazz club in New York City. Photo: William P.Gottlieb

William P.Gottlieb

Born April 7 1915, Billie Holiday was an American jazz singer, with a musical career spanning nearly 30 years. More than a century after her birth Chloe Groom takes a look back at the life and death of the iconic Lady Day.

• Widely known as Billie Holiday, the star’s real name was actually Eleanora Fagan. However she hated her name, especially the nickname Nora. When she started performing, she adopted the pseudonym Billie Holiday from an actress she admired called Billie Dove and the musician Clarence Holiday.

• Accounts of Holiday’s birth vary between sources; she claims in her own memoirs that she was born in Baltimore, Maryland but biographer Donald Clarke records her 1915 birth in Philadelphia General Hospital in the state of Pennsylvania.

• The singer had a difficult childhood, with her father leaving soon after she was born and her mother not being around much. She was raised in poverty, dropped out of school aged 11, worked in a brothel and was reportedly arrested for prostitution aged only 14.

• Holiday teamed up with a tenor saxophone player, Kenneth Hollan from 1929 to 1931, to perform at clubs.

• American record producer John Hammond discovered Holiday when she was performing in a Harlem Jazz club, aged 18.

• Holiday’s first recording was made in November 1933, called Your Mother’s Son-In-Law.

• Tenor saxophonist, Lester Young, was responsible for Holiday’s popular nickname ‘Lady Day’.

• Holiday starred beside Louis Armstrong in a 1947 movie about the birth of the Blues in New Orleans, as well as the film Symphony In Black in 1935.

• She married James Monroe in 1941, but the pairing was brief and ended after he was convicted of drug smuggling.

• Holiday released 12 studio albums in eight years, with 38 charting singles plus live and compilation albums in these and following years.

• Popular quotes from Holiday include: “I’m always making a comeback, but nobody ever tells me where I’ve been” and “If I’m going to sing like someone else, then I don’t need to sing at all”.

• Holiday’s record Strange Fruit was banned by some radio stations due to controversy, based on a poem by Abel Meeropol protesting the lynching of African Americans in the South.

• She also had to record it with music label Commodore, since Columbia considered it too controversial.

• In 1999, the same song was named Song of the century by Time magazine.

• Carmen McRae, a friend of Holiday’s, revealed that the signature white gardenias she wore in her hair originated when she burned her hair with curling tongs before a show. •

• Despite having such an illustrious music career, Holiday never learned how to read music.

• Billie Holiday’s autobiography, co-authored by William Dufty was published in 1956, three years before her death, but has since been criticised for factual inaccuracies.

• The autobiography was made into the 1972 movie, Lady Sings The Blues, in which Holiday was played by Diana Ross.

• She was introduced to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Ohio in 2002.

• According to her obituary in the New York Times, Holiday was under arrest in her hospital bed since 12th June 1959 for the illegal possession of narcotics before her death here just over 6 weeks later.

• In 1985, a statue of Holiday was erected in Baltimore, across from a monument to the Royal Theatre where Holiday often performed during her early career.

• The Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award was posthumously awarded to Holiday in 1987.

• Holiday continued to perform until the year of her death; her last performance was in New York in 1959.

• Her funeral, which was held in New York, was attended by over 3,000 people.

• At the time of her death, on July 17 1959, Holiday’s saving amounted to just $750.

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