Billie Holiday was the pre-eminent jazz singer of her day and among the most revered vocalists of the century. Although her brief life was fraught with tragedy, Holiday left a transcendent legacy of recorded work. Her pearly voice, exquisite phrasing and tough-tender persona influenced the likes of Janis Joplin and Diana Ross, among others. She performed and recorded in a jazzy “swing-sing” style from 1933 to 1958 with pianist-bandleaders Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Count Basie, Artie Shaw and others. She was closely associated with tenor saxophonist Lester “Prez” Young, who dubbed her “Lady Day.”
She was born Eleanora Fagan Gough, choosing the stage name Billie Holiday after film star Billie Dove. In 1933, she was discovered performing in a Harlem club called Monette’s by Columbia A&R man John Hammond. Her first commercial recording session occurred that November. In 1939, she recorded “Strange Fruit,” a harrowing song about black lynchings in the South, and two years later she recorded “God Bless the Child,” a self-penned classic. Her horn-like phrasing and the riveting intensity of her voice, springing from a well of pure feeling, allowed Holiday to transcend even the mediocre material she was sometimes given during the course of her prolific recording career. She recorded for Columbia Records through 1942 and moved on to Decca in 1944.
At her peak, Holiday headlined New York’s Town Hall and toured Europe. She became addicted to heroin in the mid-Forties and ultimately died from its ravages – but not before returning to Columbia to record the haunted Lady in Satin in 1958, a year before her death. Lady Sings the Blues, a biographical film from 1972, rekindled interest in Holiday’s career and music. Many of her recordings remain in print as her legend continues to grow.