Clarence Holiday was a travelling musician. He never married Fagan nor did he live with the family. Historians still dispute Holiday’s paternity after her birth certificate was released and the name Frank DeViese was listed as the father. The family continues to state that it must have been a hospital or government mix-up.
Holiday’s mother was very young when she became pregnant and her parents did not except the fact that Fagan was with child. They kicked her out of the home. After the birth, Fagan would send Holiday to live with her older married sister Eva Miller, who resided in Baltimore. Holiday avoided school as much as possible and, in January of 1925, she was in trouble for her truancy and was sent to The House of the Good Shepard, a Catholic reform school.
She was baptized while there and, after nine months, was paroled to her mother who, by then, had opened up a restaurant where Holiday would work long, hard hours. By age eleven Holiday had dropped out of school entirely.
On Christmas Eve in 1926, Fagan would return home to find their neighbour Wilbur Rich, raping the young Holiday. The police were called immediately and Rich was arrested. Meanwhile, Holiday would be sent to The Good Shepard for coloured girls, where she would receive unbearable treatment in protective custody as a state witness in the rape case. In a way, it was as if Holiday was being punished herself.
Upon her release in February, she found a job running errands in a brothel. It was during this time that Holiday’s ears started opening up to the likes of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong; she would sing along while cleaning.
In 1929, she decided to join her mother, who had moved to Harlem, New York. Once there, she would discover that her mother had become a prostitute, working in a brothel that the landlady of their apartment owned. Within days of her arrival, the thirteen-year-old Holiday would be prostituting herself, as well.
In May of 1929 the brothel was raided, and mother and daughter were both sent to prison. Holiday was released in October, now at age fourteen. Holiday would make her true singing debut in the Harlem nightclubs. She borrowed her professional name, Billie Holiday, from the screen actress Billie Dove. Holiday never underwent any technical training and never learned how to read music, but she quickly became active in what was then one of the most vibrant jazz scenes in the country.
She would advance from one club to another, working for tips, and singing with the accompaniment of a house piano player. At other times, she would work as part of a group of performers.
By age eighteen, Holiday was noticed by record producer John Hammond, and he recorded her first album as part of a studio group led by Benny Goodman. She landed a recording contract of her own after songs like ‘What Little Moonlight Can Do’ and ‘Miss Brown to You’ became hits.
Holiday began working with a man who would become her closest friend and whom she referred to as her soulmate, jazz saxophonist the “Prez” Lester Young in 1936. They would join Count Basie in 1937, and then Artie Shaw in 1938, and, with that, Holiday became one of the very first black women to work with a white orchestra, quite an accomplishment for her time. An accomplishment it was, but she still endured such awful racism while touring – not being able to use the same elevator as her bandmates and having to eat and sleep in separate environments. This racial segregation ultimately drove Holiday to quit the Artie Shaw gig.
Holiday moved on to play at the Cafe Society where, for the first time, black and white was not an issue – only the music was important. By the 1940s, Holiday had married and started her more serious drug addictions – everything from opium to heroin. It quickly became a problem for her career, causing her to not make it on stage on many occasions, as well as putting her in and out of hospitals and in court, where she would loose the ability to perform anywhere alcohol was being served. Her sexual escapades were becoming notorious; she was an open bisexual, again something that was not accepted in that time. She apparently had everyone from Orson Welles to Tallulah Bankhead.
In 1946. she landed a role in the film New Orleans, and she was able to act along side her mentor, Louis Armstrong. Since she was unable to play night clubs, she booked a show at Carnegie Hall, assuming not many would show up. She ended up being the first artist to sell out the famous hall.
She started touring and, in San Francisco, was busted again with opium. She then embarked on a European tour and was in trouble continuously, from the way she burnt up her hotel rooms with her cigarettes, to her actions in public with intoxicated. Throughout all this, Holiday made it very clear that this was her life and she choose the way she lived it – everyone else could “kiss her ass.”
In 1955, she co-wrote her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, but it was edited to such an extent that when published, it contained not even a quarter of her life story.
She married a second time, continued with her drug addiction and grieved over never having a child of her own. To compensate for this, she had an extremely close relationship with her godson, whom she used to try to breast feed, even though she was not his mother and did not have any milk to offer. They remained close until her death.
1957 surprised Holiday, as she was invited to perform on an American TV special with her old friend, Lester Young. But, besides that highlight, everything else was falling apart. She was very much alone, addicted to drugs, and severely paranoid in her last years – public outbursts were more common than not, and drug and drink had her in the hospital by 1959, suffering from cirrhosis of the liver and heart disease.
Holiday passed away on July 17, 1959 at the age of 44. She is forever know as the Lady Day, one of the most beautiful voices to ever grace music history.