Billie Holiday Interesting Facts
Billie Holiday was born as Eleanora Fagan Holiday on April 7, 1915 and she died on July 17, 1959 (age 44). Her father (Clarence Holiday) was only 15 and her mother (Sadie Fagan) was only 13 years old when Billie was born.
Eleanora hated her name, especially the nickname of Nora. Her father used to call her Bill because she was such a tomboy but she wanted a pretty name. She loved the actress, Billie Dove, so went with Billie.
Billie’s great grandmother was a slave on a Virginia plantation and had 16 children by her white, Irish plantation owner Charles Fagan. Billie’s grandfather was named after him.
As a child, Billie scrubbed the white marble steps with Bon Ami soap for white people around the neighborhood and was paid 5 cents. By the time she was age 16, she received 15 cents. She stated that often times their houses were dirty inside, but they always made sure their steps outside were clean.
When Billie lived on S. Durham Street (first at 217 and then at 219), her family was the first in the neighborhood to have gas and electricity. It made the neighbors mad when the gas pipes were installed as it brought out the rats.
Alice Dean’s Whorehouse was on the corner nearest Billie’s house (S. Durham St.). Blacks and whites were allowed in there and Billie used to lay out the Lifebuoy soap and towels. It was the only parlor that had a record player. Billie liked to listen to Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, two musicians who would influence her music.
Billie’s father wanted to be a musician and left when she was a young child. Her mother never got over him and never married (however he later married). Billie’s mother, Sadie, moved to New York and Boston since she could earn more money working as a maid. She left Billie to grow up living with her grandparents and her cousin but mainly with her mother’s older married half-sister.
When her mother returned to Baltimore, she found a 44 year old neighbor raping 11 year old Billie. The man was arrested and Billie was placed in protective custody at the House of the Good Shepherd. She was almost 12 years old when she was released. Soon after, Billie and her mother lived and worked at a whorehouse and both were arrested for prostitution. Her mother went back to Harlem as a maid and left Billie with her half-sister again.
Billie was 14 years old when she finally went to New York to be with her mother. Billie only finished the 5th grade. Her mother never went to school at all but Billie taught her to read and write.
For a period, her mother took in borders. One of them was Lester Young, who would later become a close friend and musical partner (saxophonist).
Later they lived with Florence Williams, the biggest madam in Harlem. Both Billie and her mother became prostitutes again but a few months later the house was raided and they went to prison. After a few months, they were released.
Billie’s first singing job was at Pod’s and Jerry’s on 133rd Street in New York in 1929. Billie would not take tips off the table and made the men give the money to her. The other girls said “she thinks she’s a lady” and that was the beginning of Billie’s nickname “Lady Day.” Years later her friend and musical partner, Lester Young, started calling her “Lady” but took “Day” from “Holiday” to make “Lady Day.” And in later years, she started wearing a white gardenia in her hair.
According to Carmen McRae, friend and American jazz singer, Billie burned her hair once with curling tongs just before she had to go on stage. So Carmen went out to buy some flowers to put them on Billie’s head to cover up her lost hair. There was a flower girl at the entry of the club so she bought gardenias. From that moment on Ms. Holiday wore gardenias in her hair.
Billie made her first record in 1933 – two songs with Benny Goodman and his Orchestra. One of the songs, “Riffin’ the Scotch,” sold 5,000 copies. She began recording under her own name in 1936 but was never given any royalties.
Fletcher Henderson’s band was the first Negro band to work at the Rowland Ballroom and Billie’s father played guitar with them.
Billie joined Count Basie’s band in 1937. She could not read music but half of the people in the band could not either so most of the songs were all in their heads.
During a performance in Detroit while playing in Count Basie’s band, the management at the club decided that if the spotlight was just right Billie looked white so they made her wear special grease paint to look darker. After a few performances she refused to wear the paint and quit.
When the band was traveling, Billie was not allowed to be in the dining room with her white members of the band because she was black. If she had to use the bathroom she found it was easier to stop along the side of the road and just go in the bushes. It is interesting to note that when Billie was a call girl, no one gave her any trouble when white men were her customers.
Billie’s biggest selling record was “Strange Fruit” in 1939. The song was derived from a poem about the lynching of a black man written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish teacher who used the pseudonym Lewis Allan. It was Billie’s protest against the times.
The sadness she expressed in ”Strange Fruit,” Duke Ellington’s melody, “Solitude,” and many other songs, mirrored the hard and tragic life she led. Her vocal range was just over an octave, but she made each song her own.
Her mother wanted to start her own restaurant and Billie gave her money. The restaurant was called Mom Holiday’s and was on 99th Street in New York. On many occasions she asked Billie for money since it wasn’t doing well. One time Billie needed money and asked her mother for some but her mother wouldn’t give her a dime. Billie said “God bless the child that’s got his own” and walked out. A few weeks later, she co-wrote the lyrics for that song, which soon became a big hit. The song reached number 25 on the charts in 1941. In 1976 it was added to the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Billie married Jimmy Monroe, a trombonist, in 1941. However she also had an affair with Joe Guy, a trumpeter, who supplied her with heroin. On several occasions, she was arrested for drugs. She divorced Monroe in 1947 and also broke the relationship with Guy, but not from the drugs.
By the 1950s the alcohol and drug addictions caused her voice to become coarse and not as vibrant. In 1957 she married Louis McKay, who tried to get her off drugs but to no avail.
Billie found out she had cirrhosis of the liver in 1959. She was taken to a hospital and was under police guard for possession of illegal drugs but died from pulmonary edema and heart failure on July 17, 1959 at the age of 44. She died with 70 cents in the bank.