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Billie Holiday

by Katrina Shakarian

Her smooth delivery of lyrics captured your struggle, your trials and tribulations, your highs and lows. She immortalized the content of your soul through the penetrating intensity of her voice. The great Lady Day, better known as Billie Holiday, had no formal vocal training yet the her vocal cords produced a sound as smooth as silk. When she sang, you could find peace of mind for a few moments in time.

Born Eleanora Fagan Gough in April 1915, Billie's life was troubled from the start. She was the illegitimate daughter of fifteen year old trumpeter Clareance Holiday and a mother just thirteen years old. Clareance Holiday eventually abandoned his family, leaving them penniless. In her family's struggle to make ends meet, Billie was forced into prostitution.

Inspired by the music of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, Billie attempted to leave behind the dark years of her childhood by trying her luck in New York City. While still a teenager, she made her singing debut at a nightclub on 133rd street, right here in Harlem. She chose her stage name out of admiration for actor Billie Dove.

As she made her rounds in numerous Harlem nightclubs she was discovered by John Hammond. Hammond dragged an apprehensive Billie into a recording studio for the first time. Some of Billie’s finest recordings include, "God Bless the Child,” her biggest hit, "Lover Man, " "Them there Eyes," and “Strange Fruit," a song addressing the nation’s hateful acceptance of racism.

Unfortunately, Billie’s life was continually troubled. She became a heroin addict and spent most of 1947 in jail for possession of drugs. Her addiction, combined with many unhappy relationships and heavy drinking, took a heavy toll upon her career. As years went by, she became less and less capable of capturing the magic that had once enticed her audience. During her later years she toured Europe. She had what is said to be her "final burst of glory” at the Sound of Jazz Telecast in 1957 that took place here in the United States.

Billie Holiday finally succumbed to her pain and addiction on July 17, 1959, at the age of 44. Since then her life has been examined in a series of books as well as in the movie, "Lady Sings the Blues." Decades after her death, her music has not lost its uncanny ability to penetrate your soul. Billie Holiday was, still is, and will continue to be the greatest jazz singer of all time.


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