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Born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia, she spent an impoverished childhood in Baltimore before moving to New York City in the late 1920s, when she began singing in Harlem nightclubs. A recording session in 1935 brought her to public attention. Thereafter she was vocalist with various orchestras, including those of Count Basie and Artie Shaw, and made many recordings with the saxophonist Lester Young and with the pianist Teddy Wilson.
Throughout the 1940s and '50s Holiday appeared in clubs around the U.S. with great success, although her voice increasingly showed the effects of her long-term heroin addiction. She died in Metropolitan Hospital, New York City, while under arrest for possession of illegal drugs.
Holiday rarely sang traditional blues, but her reputation rests on her ability to transform popular songs into emotionally profound pieces. Her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues (1956) inspired a 1972 movie of the same name. She was one of the greatest jazz-blues singers of all time, also known as Lady Day.
The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, under the order of Harry J. Anslinger, had been targeting Holiday since at least 1939. This was after she recorded and would not stop singing the anti-racist song Strange Fruit. She was arrested and handcuffed for drug possession. On May 31, 1959, Holiday was taken to Metropolitan Hospital in New York for treatment of liver disease and heart disease. As she lay dying, her hospital room was raided, and she was placed under police guard, Billie Holiday died on July 17, 1959.
by Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated, New York
ACSAP Biographical Dictionary
R. R. Bowker Co., Copyright 1980