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The Centennial of Lady Day


Jazz legend Billie Holiday poured her heart into each song, making each one her own with her distinct style. Born on April 7, 1915, Holiday once said that “If I’m going to sing like someone else, then I don’t need to sing at all.” She saw her voice as a musical instrument, as she explained in Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff. “I feel like I am playing a horn. I try to improvise . . . What comes out is what I feel.”

Not only did she mesmerize us with her voice, Holiday also lived a fascinating life filled with tremendous ups and downs. She managed to survive a difficult childhood—often left in the care of cold-hearted relatives and even spent time in a Catholic reform school before joining her mother in New York City. Before she found fame as a singer, Holiday did whatever it took to survive, including working a prostitute for a while. She became one of jazz’s great stars, performing with likes of Count Basie and Artie Shaw. Holiday even appeared in a film with Duke Ellington. Her great talent, however, was later diminished by bad relationships and alcohol and drug abuse.

The woman you know as Billie Holiday started out life as Eleanora Harris, according to her birth certificate. Some sources say she was also known as Eleanora Fagan. Her parents, Sadie Fagan and Clarence Holiday, were both teenagers when she was born, and her musician father took off when she was still a baby. That strained relationship didn’t stop her from borrowing his last name when she became a performer. During her childhood, she also used her stepfather’s last name, Gough, after her mother married longshoreman Phil Gough for a time.

Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith were among Holiday’s biggest early influences. As a child, she even took a job doing chores and running errands for a local madam in exchange for a chance to play records on the madam’s Victrola. Holiday later got a chance to work with Armstrong with the two of them starring in the 1947 musical New Orleans

Saxophonist Lester Young gave Holiday her famous nickname “Lady Day.” Holiday returned the favor, choosing to rename him “Pres” (or “Prez” depending on the source). The nickname was short for president of the saxophone, according to Donald Clarke’s Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon. The pair became friends in the mid-1930s and later toured together with Count Basie. They also recorded together on a number of different projects, including her 1957 television special The Sound of Jazz. Biographer Farah Jasmine Griffin described Young as Holiday’s “creative soulmate.” 

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She was an amazingly talented lady.  If she were here today certainly she would use the microphone box along with all of today’s modern technology.