April 7, 1915 - July 17, 1959
Considered by many to be the greatest of all jazz singers, her talent was matched only by tragedy.
Born Eleanora Fagan Holiday in Baltimore, as a child she was abandoned by her father. She worked as an errand girl in a brothel where she got her first exposure to jazz, listening to Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith on a parlor Victrola.
She was raped at age 10, but was accused of "seducing" her adult attacker and sent to a home for wayward girls. She moved to New York in 1928 and by the time she was 15 began singing in Harlem nightclubs where her vocals moved customers to tears.
In 1932 she was discovered by jazz record producer John Hammond and a year later recorded with Benny Goodman's orchestra. She went on to perform with various jazz bands - Teddy Wilson, Count Basie, Artie Shaw - and she appeared in short films, Rhapsody in Black (1935) and New Orleans (1946).
She appeared in Baltimore occasionally at the Royal Theater and in nightclubs.
Frequently confronted by Jim Crow laws while growing up, she went outside her record company to record "Strange Fruit," a protest against lynching.
Among her best known singles were "God Bless the Child," "Gloomy Sunday" and "Lover Man."
Billie said about her music, "What comes is what I feel. That's all I know." Someone said about her, "Once Billie Holiday owned a song others could only borrow it."
Exposed to heroin and alcohol, she began an addiction she couldn't break that would destoy her voice and her health. Holiday voiced all of her life experiences in her work.
Her Autobiography, "Lady Sings the Blues," was published in 1956. A bronze statue of Lady Day stands in Upton in a small park at Pennsylvania and Lafayette streets.
--Paul McCardellCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun