Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Harris (1915–1959) was an African American jazz singer and songwriter. Her singing style, strongly inspired by jazz musicians, lead to a new way of using word choice and rhythm. A critic named John Bush once wrote that Holiday “changed the art of American pop vocals forever. ” She only co-wrote a few songs, but a number of them have become jazz standards that many musicians strive to live up to.
Some of these standards were set by songs of hers such as “God Bless the Child”, “Don’t Explain”, “Fine and Mellow”, and “Lady Sings the Blues”. She also became famous for singing “Easy Living”, “Good Morning Heartache“, and “Strange Fruit”, a protest song which became one of her standards and was made famous with her 1939 recording. In Harlem she started singing in various night clubs. Holiday took her professional pen name from Billie Dove, an actress she admired, and the musician Clarence Holiday, thus was born “Billie Holiday”.
The producer John Hammond arranged for Holiday to make her recording debut, at age 18, in November 1933 with Benny Goodman, singing two songs: “Your Mother’s Son-In-Law” and “Riffin’ the Scotch. ” The latter being her first big hit. “Son-in-Law” sold 300 records, but “Riffin’ the Scotch,” sold 5,000 records. Hammond was very impressed by Holiday’s vocalization style. He said of Holiday that, “Her singing almost changed my music tastes and my musical life; because she was the first girl singer I’d come across who actually sang like an improvising jazz genius. Hammond compared Holiday positively to Armstrong and said she had a good sense of lyrics at her young age. In early 1959 Holiday found out that she had cirrhosis of the liver. The doctor told her to stop drinking, which she did for a short time, but soon returned to heavy drinking. Some of her friends tried to get her to check into a hospital, but she did not go. On May 31, 1959, Holiday was forcibly taken to Metropolitan Hospital in New York suffering from liver and heart disease.
She was arrested for having drugs with her as she lay dying, and her hospital room was invaded by the police. Police officers were stationed at the door to her room because of her drugs. Holiday remained under police guard at the hospital until she died from pulmonary edema and heart failure caused by cirrhosis of the liver on July 17, 1959. In the final years of her life, she had been gradually tricked out of her earnings because of her drug and alcohol addictions. She died with seventy cents in the bank and seven-hundred fifty dollar tabloid fee.