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The Unprecedented Rise And Tragic Death Of Billie Holiday

Updated September 16, 2021 85.8k views16 items
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Although it has been imitated for decades, Billie Holiday's iconic voice is a true jazz-age original. Her haunting and melancholy music is a reflection of a life filled with love and pain. Growing up in poverty, barely surviving on the streets of New York in the 1930s, and years of substance abuse shaped Holiday's future and crafted a voice that could stop a person in their tracks.

She is remembered for many hits that have been endlessly covered since her early death, the most haunting of those being the protest poem-turned-song "Strange Fruit." Her music, with its unique cadence and moving lyrics, pays tribute to the life of Billie Holiday, an artist with incredible strength, resilience, and talent.

  • Newly Released From Prison, She Applied For A Dancing Job At A Club - But Was Instead Hired As A Singer

    After being released from jail, Holiday needed a job. She went to a club called the Log Cabin to apply for a job as a dancer, but it turns out she was applying for the wrong role.

    As she tells it, "Told him I was a dancer. He said to dance. I tried it. He said I stunk. I told him I could sing. He said sing … I sang. The customers stopped drinking." 

    She was hired as a singer for $18 per week, and slowly branched out into performing in other clubs around Harlem.

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Touring America In The '30s Meant Dealing With Racism And Segregation

    In the mid-1930s, Billie Holiday became one of the first female Black singers to work with a white orchestra. It was not a widely accepted practice at the time; once, while playing with a Black orchestra, a venue manager insisted that she darken her light skin so people wouldn't be upset (because they thought a white woman was singing with a Black band).

    She and her band, no matter who she was playing with, often struggled with segregation while on tour. She said later of her touring years that it was difficult to even find a restaurant where her whole band could eat together.

  • One Of Her Iconic Hits Is Easily One Of The Most Haunting Songs In American History

    Video: YouTube

    The song "Strange Fruit" began as a poem by a Jewish teacher in the Bronx named Abel Meeropol. He wrote it as a protest, after he saw photos of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Indiana. He set the poem to music and began performing it publicly at protests.

    Billie Holiday first performed "Strange Fruit" in 1939. Holiday's label at the time, Columbia, wasn't interested in recording the song, so she recorded it with Commodore Records instead. It became a huge hit, and one of the songs that she was most well-known for. However, she said that some audiences didn't seem to grasp the meaning of the song, requesting "that sexy song about the people swinging."

  • Her First Husband Introduced Her To Heroin

    Depending on who you ask, Billie's first husband either smoked opium or had a heroin habit. The drugs have their subtle differences, but are very similar substances - and either way, they had the same effect on her life.

    Her husband, Jimmy Monroe, was a fellow musician - a trombone player. With Billie's growing success, she was able to keep both of them supplied with drugs. The marriage lasted less than three years.