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Billie Holiday was one of the most influential jazz singers of all time. She had a thriving career for many years before she lost her battle with addiction.
Billie Holiday - Big Break (3:08)
Even with a successful budding career, Billie Holiday still struggled to maintain her status as a groundbreaking jazz singer because of her addiction to drugs.
Billie Holiday was romantically involved with several different people during her rise to fame, both men and women, including Jimmy Monroe, Orson Welles and Tallulah Bankhead.
After enduring a difficult childhood, Billie Holiday got her big break after being discovered in a jazz club by John Hammond for her skill at improvising when she sang.
A short biography of Billie "Lady Day" Holiday.
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Known for her distinctive phrasing and expressive, sometimes melancholy voice, Holiday went on to record with jazz pianist Teddy Wilson and others in 1935. She made several singles, including "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" and "Miss Brown to You." That same year, Holiday appeared with Duke Ellington in the film Symphony in Black.
Around this time, Holiday met and befriended saxophonist Lester Young, who was part of Count Basie's orchestra on and off for years. He even lived with Holiday and her mother Sadie for a while. Young gave Holiday the nickname "Lady Day" in 1937—the same year she joined Basie's band. In return, she called "Prez," which was her way of saying that she thought it was the greatest.
Holiday toured with the Count Basie Orchestra in 1937. The following year, she worked with Artie Shaw and his orchestra. Holiday broke new ground with Shaw, becoming one of the first female African American vocalists to work with a white orchestra. Promoters objected to Holiday—for her race and for her unique vocal style—and she ended up leaving the orchestra out of frustration.
Striking out on her own, Holiday performed at New York's Café Society. She developed some of her trademark stage persona there—wearing gardenias in her hair and singing with her head tilted back.
During this engagement, Holiday also debuted two of her most famous songs "God Bless the Child" and "Strange Fruit." Columbia, her record company at the time, was not interested in "Strange Fruit" (1939), which was a powerful story about the lynching of African Americans in the South. Holiday recorded the song with the Commodore label instead. This ballad is considered to be one of her signature ballads, and the controversy that surrounded it—some radio stations banned the record—helped make it a hit.
Over the years, Holiday sang many songs of stormy relationships, including "T'ain't Nobody's Business If I Do" and "My Man." These songs reflected her personal romances, which were often destructive and abusive. She married James Monroe in 1941. Already known to drink, Holiday picked up her new husband's habit of smoking opium. The marriage didn't last, but Holiday's problems with substance abuse continued. (They later divorced.)
That same year, Holiday had a hit with "God Bless the Child." She later signed with Decca Records in 1944 and scored an R&B hit the next year with "Lover Man." Her boyfriend at the time was trumpeter Joe Guy, and with him she started using heroin. After the death of her mother in October 1945, Holiday began drinking more heavily and escalated her drug use to ease her grief.
Despite her personal problems, Holiday remained a major star in the jazz world—and even in popular music as well. She appeared with her idol Louis Armstrong in the 1947 film New Orleans, albeit playing the role of a maid. Unfortunately, Holiday's drug use caused her a great professional setback that same year.
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