Billie Holiday - Movie, Death & Strange Fruit (2024)


Who Was Billie Holiday?

Billie Holiday is considered one of the best jazz vocalists of all time, Holiday had a thriving career as a jazz singer for many years before she lost her battle with substance abuse. Also known as Lady Day, her autobiography was made into the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues. In 2000, Holiday was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Early Life

Holiday was born Eleanora fa*gan on April 7, 1915, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Some sources say her birthplace was Baltimore, Maryland, and her birth certificate reportedly reads "Elinore Harris.")

Holiday spent much of her childhood in Baltimore, Maryland. Her mother, Sadie, was only a teenager when she had her. Her father is widely believed to be Clarence Holiday, who eventually became a successful jazz musician, playing with the likes of Fletcher Henderson.

Unfortunately for Holiday, her father was an infrequent visitor in her life growing up. Sadie married Philip Gough in 1920 and for a few years, Holiday had a somewhat stable home life. But that marriage ended a few years later, leaving Holiday and Sadie to struggle along on their own again. Sometimes Holiday was left in the care of other people.

Holiday started skipping school, and she and her mother went to court over Holiday's truancy. She was then sent to the House of Good Shepherd, a facility for troubled African American girls, in January 1925.

Only 9 years old at the time, Holiday was one of the youngest girls there. She was returned to her mother's care in August of that year. According to Donald Clarke's biography, Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon, she returned there in 1926 after she had been sexually assaulted.

In her difficult early life, Holiday found solace in music, singing along to the records of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. She followed her mother, who had moved to New York City in the late 1920s, and worked in a house of prostitution in Harlem for a time.

Around 1930, Holiday began singing in local clubs and renamed herself "Billie" after the film star Billie Dove.

READ MORE: 7 Things You May Not Know About Billie Holiday


At the age of 18, Holiday was discovered by producer John Hammond while she was performing in a Harlem jazz club. Hammond was instrumental in getting Holiday recording work with an up-and-coming clarinetist and bandleader Benny Goodman.

With Goodman, she sang vocals for several tracks, including her first commercial release "Your Mother's Son-In-Law" and the 1934 top 10 hit "Riffin' the Scotch."

Known for her distinctive phrasing and expressive, sometimes melancholy voice, Holiday went on to record with jazz pianist Teddy Wilson and others in 1935.

She made several singles, including "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" and "Miss Brown to You." That same year, Holiday appeared with Duke Ellington in the film Symphony in Black.

Lady Day

Around this time, Holiday met and befriended saxophonist Lester Young, who was part of Count Basie's orchestra on and off for years. He even lived with Holiday and her mother Sadie for a while.

Young gave Holiday the nickname "Lady Day" in 1937 — the same year she joined Basie's band. In return, she called him "Prez," which was her way of saying that she thought it was the greatest.

Holiday toured with the Count Basie Orchestra in 1937. The following year, she worked with Artie Shaw and his orchestra. Holiday broke new ground with Shaw, becoming one of the first female African American vocalists to work with a white orchestra.

Promoters, however, objected to Holiday — for her race and for her unique vocal style — and she ended up leaving the orchestra out of frustration.

"Strange Fruit"

Striking out on her own, Holiday performed at New York's Café Society. She developed some of her trademark stage persona there — wearing gardenias in her hair and singing with her head tilted back.

During this engagement, Holiday also debuted two of her most famous songs, "God Bless the Child" and "Strange Fruit." Columbia, her record company at the time, was not interested in "Strange Fruit," which was a powerful story about the lynching of African Americans in the South.

Holiday recorded the song with the Commodore label instead. "Strange Fruit" is considered to be one of her signature ballads, and the controversy that surrounded it — some radio stations banned the record — helped make it a hit.

Over the years, Holiday sang many songs of stormy relationships, including "T'ain't Nobody's Business If I Do" and "My Man." These songs reflected her personal romances, which were often destructive and abusive.

Holiday married James Monroe in 1941. Already known to drink, Holiday picked up her new husband's habit of smoking opium. The marriage didn't last — they later divorced — but Holiday's problems with substance abuse continued.

READ MORE: The Tragic Story Behind Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit"

Henry Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics

In 1939, after singing her song “Strange Fruit,” Holiday received a warning from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a government agency which lasted from 1930 to 1968, to never sing the song again. Holiday refused and kept singing the song.

FBN commissioner Harry Anslinger believed Holiday to be the symbol of everything that America had to be afraid of.

“She had a heroin addiction because she’d been chronically raped as a child and she was trying to deal with the grief and the pain of that,” Johann Hari, who wrote the book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, told WNYC. “And also, she was resisting white supremacy. And when she insisted on continuing on her right as an American citizen to sing 'Strange Fruit,’ Anslinger resolves to destroy her.”

Anslinger was a widely known racist and made it his mission to take Holiday down for her drug and alcohol addiction and relentlessly pursued her all the way up until her death in 1959.

Personal Problems

That same year, Holiday had a hit with "God Bless the Child." She later signed with Decca Records in 1944 and scored an R&B hit the next year with "Lover Man."

Her boyfriend at the time was trumpeter Joe Guy, and with him she started using heroin. After the death of her mother in October 1945, Holiday began drinking more heavily and escalated her drug use to ease her grief.

Despite her personal problems, Holiday remained a major star in the jazz world—and even in popular music as well. She appeared with her idol Louis Armstrong in the 1947 film New Orleans, albeit playing the role of a maid.

Unfortunately, Holiday's drug use caused her a great professional setback that same year. She was arrested and convicted for narcotics possession in 1947. Sentenced to one year and a day of jail time, Holiday went to a federal rehabilitation facility in Alderson, West Virginia.

Released the following year, Holiday faced new challenges. Because of her conviction, she was unable to get the necessary license to play in cabarets and clubs. Holiday, however, could still perform at concert halls and had a sold-out show at the Carnegie Hall not long after her release.

With some help from John Levy, a New York club owner, Holiday was later to get to play in New York's Club Ebony. Levy became her boyfriend and manager by the end of the 1940s, joining the ranks of the men who took advantage of Holiday.

Also around this time, she was again arrested for narcotics, but she was acquitted of the charges.

Later Years

While her hard living was taking a toll on her voice, Holiday continued to tour and record in the 1950s. She began recording for Norman Granz, the owner of several small jazz labels, in 1952. Two years later, Holiday had a hugely successful tour of Europe.

Holiday also caught the public's attention by sharing her life story with the world in 1956. Her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues (1956), was written in collaboration by William Dufty.

Some of the material in the book, however, must be taken with a grain of salt. Holiday was in rough shape when she worked with Dufty on the project, and she claimed to have never read the book after it was finished.

Around this time, Holiday became involved with Louis McKay. The two were arrested for narcotics in 1956, and they married in Mexico the following year. Like many other men in her life, McKay used Holiday's name and money to advance himself.

Despite all of the trouble she had been experiencing with her voice, she managed to give an impressive performance on the television broadcast The Sound of Jazz with Ben Webster, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins.

After years of lackluster recordings and record sales, Holiday recorded Lady in Satin (1958) with the Ray Ellis Orchestra for Columbia. The album's songs showcased her rougher sounding voice, which still could convey great emotional intensity.

Death and Legacy

Holiday gave her final performance in New York City on May 25, 1959. Not long after this event, Holiday was admitted to the hospital for heart and liver problems.

She was so addicted to heroin that she was even arrested for possession while in the hospital. On July 17, 1959, Holiday died from alcohol- and drug-related complications.

More than 3,000 people turned out to say good-bye to Lady Day at her funeral held in St. Paul the Apostle Roman Catholic Church on July 21, 1959. A who's who of the jazz world attended the solemn occasion, including Goodman, Gene Krupa, Tony Scott, Buddy Rogers and John Hammond.

Considered one of the best jazz vocalists of all time, Holiday has been an influence on many other performers who have followed in her footsteps.

Her autobiography was made into the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues with famed singer Diana Ross playing the part of Holiday, which helped renew interest in Holiday's recordings.

In 2000, Holiday was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Ross handling the honors.

In 2021, Andra Day portrayed Holiday in the biopic The United States vs. Billie Holiday.

  • Name: Billie Holiday
  • Birth Year: 1915
  • Birth date: April 7, 1915
  • Birth State: Pennsylvania
  • Birth City: Philadelphia
  • Birth Country: United States
  • Gender: Female
  • Best Known For: Billie Holiday was one of the most influential jazz singers of all time. She had a thriving career for many years before she lost her battle with addiction.
  • Industries
    • Jazz
  • Astrological Sign: Aries
  • Schools
    • The House of the Good Shepherd
  • Death Year: 1959
  • Death date: July 17, 1959
  • Death State: New York
  • Death City: New York
  • Death Country: United States

We strive for accuracy and fairness.If you see something that doesn't look right,contact us!

  • Article Title: Billie Holiday Biography
  • Author: Editors
  • Website Name: The website
  • Url:
  • Access Date:
  • Publisher: A&E; Television Networks
  • Last Updated: November 12, 2021
  • Original Published Date: April 3, 2014
  • I have to change a tune to my own way of doing it. That's all I know.
  • No two people on earth are alike, and it's got to be that way in music or it isn't music.
  • I never hurt nobody but myself, and that's nobody's business but my own.
Billie Holiday - Movie, Death & Strange Fruit (2024)


Why was the song Strange Fruit so controversial? ›

The lyrics were drawn from a poem by Meeropol published in 1937. The song protests the lynching of Black Americans with lyrics that compare the victims to the fruit of trees. Such lynchings had reached a peak in the Southern United States at the turn of the 20th century and the great majority of victims were black.

Is Strange Fruit based on a true story? ›

One of Billie Holiday's most iconic songs is "Strange Fruit," a haunting protest against the inhumanity of racism. Many people know that the man who wrote the song was inspired by a photograph of a lynching. But they might not realize that he's also tied to another watershed moment in America's history.

Were Billie Holiday and Tallulah Bankhead lovers? ›

Her romantic tastes were equally iconoclastic; allegedly, she had affairs with Charles Laughton, Tallulah Bankhead, and Orson Welles, the “finest cat” she ever met. Pugnacious as she was precocious, Holiday battled through the sadness of her life, time and time again. “I know Lady,” Louis Armstrong once said.

What caused Billie Holiday's cirrhosis? ›

The cause of death was heart failure brought on by cirrhosis of the liver — in short, alcoholism. Yet, as she lay on her deathbed, she was hit by an avalanche of lurid headlines like “Charge Billie Holiday Used Narcotics While in Hospital” and “Singer Held in Dope Case.”

Why was the song Strange Fruit so important? ›

Strange Fruit quickly became an anthem of the anti-lynching movement and the first significant song of the then fledging Civil Rights Movement. The song forced listeners to confront the brutality of lynching.

Why is it important to remember Billie Holiday? ›

Today, Billie Holiday is remembered for her musical masterpieces, her songwriting skills, creativity and courageous views on inequality and justice. Holiday (born Eleanora fa*gan Gough) grew up in jazz-soaked Baltimore of the 1920s.

How much of the United States vs Billie Holiday is true? ›

As you can, see the general story of Holiday's life is depicted accurately in The United States vs. Billie Holiday. But, as the film focuses on Holiday and Fletcher, details had to be created to tell that story and some presumptions made about their relationship.

Was the poplar tree used for lynching? ›

The poplar tree depicted in Lynching Tree, located on the outskirts of New Orleans, was once used as gallows on which slaves were hanged. The photograph captured by McQueen guides us to look beyond the seemingly mundane scene and consider the violent legacy embedded in the Southern landscape.

Who owns Billie Holiday's estate now? ›

Billie Holiday's estate went to her abusive third husband, then his widow. Now it's owned by Concord, which is benefiting from new films.

Was Billie Holiday ever married? ›

On March 28, 1957, Holiday married Louis McKay, a mob enforcer. McKay, like most of the men in her life, was abusive.

Did Jimmy Fletcher and Billie Holiday have a relationship? ›

As for whether Fletcher actually fell in love with Holiday, Hari believes that he did. “The man Anslinger sent to track and bust Billie Holiday had, it seems, fallen in love with her,” Hari wrote in his Politico story.

What was Tallulah Bankhead cause of death? ›

I've always wanted death. Nothing else do I want more.” It was a dozen years later, in 1968, that she finally got her way, quickly succumbing to double pneumonia.

Did Billie Holiday have any kids? ›

Billie Holiday - Lady Day had a lot of ups and downs before she died at the age of 44 in 1959, but no children. Instead, her legacy lives on through her timeless music.

What happened to Billie Holiday when she was a child? ›

Raised primarily by her mother, Holiday had only a tenuous connection with her father, who was a jazz guitarist in Fletcher Henderson's band. Living in extreme poverty, Holiday dropped out of school in the fifth grade and found a job running errands in a brothel.

What was Billie Holiday's nickname? ›

Her career quickly grew as she recorded songs with Teddy Wilson and began a long partnership with Lester Young, who gave her the nickname "Lady Day." In 1938, she was invited to headline an orchestra by Artie Shaw. Holiday became the first African American woman to work with an all-white band.

What is the meaning of the poem Strange Fruit? ›

The poem and song "Strange Fruit" written by Abel Meeropol and sung by Billie Holiday in 1939 darkly describes the violence, specifically lynchings, that African Americans endured leading up to the Civil Rights Movement.

What is the main theme of Strange Fruit? ›

In Billie Holiday's song "Strange Fruit," the theme demonstrates the horror of lynching in post-Civil War America in the Deep South. As the song progresses, a much deeper interpretation of racial prejudice emerges.

What is the dance Strange Fruit about? ›

The dance performance of “Strange Fruit” portrays the emotional journey of a white woman as she reacts in horror to the sight of lynching she witnessed and participated in.

What is the poem Strange Fruit about? ›

"Strange Fruit" is a poem about racism and hatred. Specifically, it is about the treatment of black people by white people during a period of time roughly running from the end of the American Civil War up to the time of the poem's composition in the 1930s.

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Mr. See Jast

Last Updated:

Views: 5520

Rating: 4.4 / 5 (75 voted)

Reviews: 90% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Mr. See Jast

Birthday: 1999-07-30

Address: 8409 Megan Mountain, New Mathew, MT 44997-8193

Phone: +5023589614038

Job: Chief Executive

Hobby: Leather crafting, Flag Football, Candle making, Flying, Poi, Gunsmithing, Swimming

Introduction: My name is Mr. See Jast, I am a open, jolly, gorgeous, courageous, inexpensive, friendly, homely person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.