The greatest jazz singer of all time would have turned 100 today had her life not been tragically cut short in 1959 at the age of 44. While Lady Day had to confront a lifetime of abuse, racism and sexism in those 44 years, she also left an indelible mark on popular music with her unforgettable voice, oozing with an emotional power that is, after all these years, still beyond compare. Holiday’s centennial is being celebrated worldwide with concerts, books and new releases — it’s a life and career that are impossible to summarize in just a few words, so we chose to remember the legendary and enigmatic singer with “five things you might not know about Billie Holiday.”
1. She heard her first jazz records at a brothel where she cleaned and ran errands after she dropped out of school at age 12.
Billie Holiday, born Eleanora Fagan in Baltimore, 1915, had a tragic childhood. She was born out of wedlock, in extreme poverty — her mother was only 13 years old. When she was eleven, she survived a rape attempt by her neighbor, after which she was sent to a Catholic home. She dropped out of school completely and found a job cleaning and running errands for the Alice Dean brothel, where she was allowed to listen and sing along with records by Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong on the Victrola. “I spent many a wonderful hour there listening to Pops and Bessie. I remember Pops’ recording of ‘West End Blues’ and how it used to gas me. It was the first time I ever heard anybody sing without using any words” she wrote in her 1957 autobiography, Lady Sings The Blues. The two would remain two of the biggest influences on Holiday’s music. She claimed that with her singing she wanted “the style” of Armstrong and “the feeling” of Smith.
2. Her record label, Columbia, refused to record her signature song “Strange Fruit.”
In 1939, encouraged by the owner of Cafe Society, New York’s first racially integrated nightclub, Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit” for the first time. It was a watershed moment, both for her career and music history. The deeply powerful and haunting song, based on a poem by a Jewish schoolteacher, devastatingly dealt with lynching in the Deep South –– “strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees” – and became an anthem for the civil rights movement. It cemented her reputation as one of the jazz scene’s most talented and unique singers, and landed her in Time magazine, which, 60 years later called it “the song of the century.” It would never have been recorded if it wasn’t for Holiday’s persistence, however. Her record label, Columbia, believing it was ‘too inflammatory’ and would cause trouble with record retailers in the South, refused to record it. Holiday insisted and took the song to her friend Milt Gabler. She moved him to tears with an a capella rendition of the song, and he recorded it on his alternative jazz label, Commodore. The 1939 record sold a million copies, becoming her biggest-selling record to date. The rest is history.
3. She was Billy Crystal’s babysitter.
Milt Gabler produced several of Billie Holiday’s seminal songs with her in the 10 years after they recorded Strange Fruit. Gabler had founded Commodore Records together with his brother-in-law, Jack Crystal, who owned a record store in Manhattan and was a booking agent for jazz acts. Billie Holiday often frequented the Crystal’s house, and even babysat his son, Billy Crystal. In his HBO Special “700 Sundays” Crystal recalled that the first time he went to the movies, in 1953, it was Holiday who took him. The two of them saw Shane starring a young Jack Palance, who would later become Crystal’s friend and City Slickers co-star.
Just as Holiday’s popularity and commercial success were reaching new heights in 1947-1948, she was plunging into a period of personal lows. In May, she was arrested in her New York City apartment on narcotics charges and sentenced to a prison camp in West Virginia (later nicknamed “Camp Cupcake” when Martha Stewart served time there). When she was released on good behavior a year later, her manager convinced her to make a grand comeback at Carnegie Hall, mere weeks after her release. Holiday was reluctant to perform, not having sung a note while incarcerated, but eventually relented. It was a triumphant return. The concert sold out weeks in advance and hundreds of additional seats had to be added — 2,700 people showed up, a record. Someone had sent her gardenias, and a nervous Holiday stuck them to her head, without thinking twice. “I hadn’t noticed, but there was a huge hatpin, and I stuck it deep into my head. I was so numb from excitement I didn’t feel anything until the blood started rushing down in my eyes and ears.” She passed out after the third curtain call, following a brilliant comeback performance of 21 songs and six encores.
5. She died with 70 cents in the bank and $750 taped to her leg.
On May 31, 1959, following a lifetime of drug and alcohol abuse, Holiday was taken to the Metropolitan Hospital in New York, with liver and heart disease. The Bureau of Narcotics, led by Harry Anslinger, a commissioner who despised jazz and had made Holiday his number one target, followed the singer to her deathbed. Holiday’s hospital room was raided, and she was arrested on drug charges and handcuffed to her bed. The police officer guarding her room was removed by a court order mere hours before her death. Her ongoing troubles with the law, abusive husbands, malicious promoters, and a fatal heroin addiction had left her completely broke. She died with 70 cents in the bank and 750 dollars taped to her leg — an advance for a tabloid article she had promised to write about her life. A harrowing ending to a life that was defined by endless personal tragedy and unparalleled musical beauty.