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The Unprecedented Rise And Tragic Death Of Billie Holiday

Updated September 16, 2021 85.8k views16 items

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.

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  • Photo: Unnamed Los Angeles Times photographer / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The Death Of Her Mother Escalated Her Drug And Alcohol Problems

    The death of her mother, Sadie, in 1945 was a traumatic period in Holiday's life. The pain of her loss drove her even further into the abyss of substance abuse. She had always been a heavy drinker, and had been using heroin for years. Her grief led to the beginning of a steady downward spiral that would hang a cloud over her career for the rest of her life.

  • Photo: Federal Bureau of Prisons / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    She Went To Prison In 1947 For Drug Possesion

    Billie's drug habit had been slowly building up since the early 1940s and came to a breaking point in 1947. She was arrested for possession of narcotics, and requested to be sent to a federal rehabilitation center in Virginia. She stayed for a year and a day, in an attempt to rid herself of the destructive drug habits that were starting to slowly destroy her career.

  • Photo: United Artists / Wikipedia / Fair Use

    She Appeared Alongside Her Idol, Louis Armstrong, On The Silver Screen

    In the film New Orleanswhich premiered in 1947 shortly before Billie went to prison for drug use, the singer got to appear alongside Louis Armstrong. The film was a romantic musical, with Louis's and Billie's characters falling in love. As much of a coup as this was for Billie, who had loved the idea of getting billed in a film with Armstrong, it was something of a double-edged blade: she was cast as a maid, a role that no doubt lacked the dignity she would have preferred.

  • Photo: Ralph F. Seghers c/o Ken Seghers / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 2.0

    Her Cabaret Card Was Revoked

    After her arrest and subsequent treatment, Billie returned to New York to perform. There was one thing in the way, however - her "Cabaret Card" had been revoked. Because of the drug conviction, she no longer held the license that allowed her to play in venues that served alcohol. 

    She still played in grand venues like Carnegie Hall and toured throughout Europe, but it was always the nightclubs that she had grown up playing that held her heart.