Eleanora Harris (a.k.a. Billie “Lady Day” Holiday) was born in Philadelphia in 1915. She had a hard childhood—her father abandoned the family and Billie was cared for by abusive relatives. She was raped at 11 years old, and spent her entire childhood in poverty.
In 1929, at the young age of 14, Holiday moved to New York where she worked as a maid and as a teenage prostitute.
“I never hurt nobody but myself and that’s nobody business but my own.”-Billie Holiday
In 1930, she also began to sing in bars and restaurants to avoid eviction. At first, singing was a way to make money for Holiday—a means for survival. However, it soon became a passion for her, one that was readily received by audiences.
Her lucky break came while singing in front of the well-connected record producer and talent spotter John Hammond Jr. He arranged for her to record a couple of titles with Benny Goodman in 1933.
During 1935-42 she made some of the most memorable recordings of her career. These jazz-oriented performances were joined by the most prominent swing musicians of the time. Holiday intended to combine Louis Armstrong’s swing and Bessie Smith’s sound in order to create her own original technique.
In 1939, Holiday made music history by recording “Strange Fruit,” a strong anti-racism song that became a permanent part of her repertoire.
After recording a string of popular titles, Holiday became addicted to heroine and spent much of 1947 in jail. Nonetheless, her celebrity status never decreased, and she was just as popular as ever. However, her heroine use and excessive drinking continued well into the 1950’s.
Ending her life in the same tragic way it began, Billie Holiday was placed under arrest for drug use on her deathbed. She died on July 17, 1959, at the age of 44 in New York.