Billie Holiday: Facts and Greatest Achievements
From singing in countless nightclubs in Harlem, New York City to releasing hit songs after hit songs, Billie Holiday had a wonderful music career that only a few artists in history could ever dream of having. Born Eleanora Fagan, Billie Holiday’s influence on jazz music and pop songs remains in a unique category of its own; her vocal style left an indelible mark on many jazz instrumentalists and singers. With monumental hit songs like “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”, it came as no surprise that she consistently had sold-out concerts at the famous Carnegie Hall in the late 1940s.
Billie Holiday: Quick Facts
Full name – Eleanora Fagan
Birth date and place – April 7, 1915; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
Death date and place – July 17, 1959; New York City, United States
Died of – heart failure caused by cirrhosis of the liver
Buried at – Saint Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx
Parents – Sarah Julia “Sadie” Fagan and Clarence Holiday
Spouse – Jimmy Monroe (married in 1941), Louis McKay (1957)
Also Known As – “Lady Day”
Notable Awards and Honors – four Grammy Awards (posthumously); Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award; Induction into the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame; Inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Popular songs – “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”, “Crazy He Calls Me”, Strange Fruit”, “God Bless the Child”, and “Good Morning Heartache”
Famous Albums – Stay with Me (1958), Body and Soul (1957), The Lady Sings (1956), Velvet Mood (1956), All or Nothing at All (1958), Lady in Satin (1958)
Achievements of Billie Holiday
Below we explore 5 important achievements of Billie Holiday, the Philadelphia-born musician whose unparalleled influence on jazz music continues to reverberate in the music industry.
Billie Holiday made her recording debut at the age of 18
After going through an extremely troubling childhood, teenaged Billie Holiday found herself in Harlem, New York, where she performed in numerous nightclubs, including the Grey Dawn, Pod’s and Jerry’s on 133rd Street, and Covan’s.
During one of her performances, Billie Holiday’s exhilarating vocals caught the attention of renowned music producer John Hammond. That same year, in 1933, Hammond made plans for Holiday to record two songs, “Riffin’ the Scotch” and “Son-in-Law”, marking her debut at just 18.
Her debut song “Riffin’ the Scotch” was received very well and sold more than 5,000 copies. Blown away by the manner in which she improvised when she sang, Hammond helped launch her music career. He also helped her sign to the record label Brunswick in 1935.
Formed an amazing music partnership with Teddy Wilson and John Hammond
The record company that she signed to thought it wise to pair her with pianist Teddy Wilson. Together with Wilson, Billie Holiday made songs using the swing style that were aimed at the jukebox market.
Holiday and Wilson formed a brilliant partnership which saw them come out with innovative vocal techniques. Ultimately, their efforts bore good results, as they were able to release emotionally charged songs, blending styles not seen until that time.
The first songs from Holiday-Wilson collaboration were “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Miss Brown to You”. The former song proved to be Billie Holiday’s real breakthrough song, as it was well received by critics. Then, there was the song “I Cried for You” which went on to sell about 15,000 copies.
Did you know: The additions of Billie Holiday and pianist Teddy Wilson to Brunswick helped turn around the fortunes of the record company?
Her song “Strange Fruit” (1939) was well received and became her best-selling record
Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit” was released in 1939. The song was based on a poem by Abel Meeropol – a Jewish schoolteacher. The poem was Meeropol’s way of protesting against lynching of Blacks in America, particular in the deep South. The writer drew parallels between the victims of lynching to the fruits of trees.
Holiday first got to know about the poem-turned-music from Barney Josephson, a nightclub owner. Even though the lyrics brought her to tears, as it reminded her of her father’s death*, she still went ahead to perform it for several years. The song, which was recorded under Commodore Records, went on to become her best-selling record.
The song was also famous among civil rights activists. It was later covered by renowned artists such as Nina Simone, Robert Wyatt, Diana Ross and UB40. Billie Holiday’s version of “Strange Fruit” received the honor it deserves and got inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978.
* Billie Holiday stated that her father tragically passed away after he was denied needed medical assistance due to his race.
One of the most celebrated African-American jazz vocalists
Regarded as one of the most talented jazz artists of the 20th century, Billie Holiday released several recordings that shaped jazz music for a very long time. Notable example of those songs of her was “God Bless the Child”, a song that was released in 1941 under the record label Okeh. The song stemmed from an altercation she had with her mother over money. In the course of the argument her mother said “God bless the child that’s got his own.”
Holiday worked with pianist Arthur Herzog, Jr. in writing the song. After it was released, the song reached No. 25 on the charts in 1941. It also made it to the third position in Billboard’s songs of the year. Additionally, the song sold over a million records. In 1976, the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Other Billie Holiday songs that have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame include “My Man” (1937), “Embraceable You” (1944), “Crazy He Calls Me”, “Lover Man” (1945), etc.
Did you know: The Irish rock band U2 released a song titled “Angel of Harlem” (1988) in honor of Billie Holiday?
Sold-out comeback concerts
Following her release from the Alderson Federal Prison in West Virginia, she made a huge return to the music industry. Owing to her conviction she could not perform at places that sold alcohol; therefore, she was restricted to performing in concerts and theaters. Her comeback concerts of the late 1940s were complete sold-outs, as she dazzled the audiences at the Carnegie Hall with many of her hit songs.
Other accomplishments of Billie Holiday
- She has been posthumously awarded four Grammy Award for Best Historical Album for recordings: Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday, The Complete Billie Holiday, Billie Holiday – The Complete Decca Recordings, and Billie Holiday – Giants of Jazz.
- In 1987, she posthumously received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
- After her death, she was inducted into a number of halls of fame, including the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame; the Grammy Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (in 2000), the National Women’s Hall of Fame (in 2011), and the Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame (in 2004).
- The Grammy Hall of Fame has been of enormous praise for Billie Holiday recordings, including “My Man” (1937), Lady in Satin (1958), and “God Bless the Child” (1941).
- To honor her immense contribution to jazz music and music in general, a statue of Billie Holiday was erected in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1985.
- The Library of Congress in the United States has her hit track “Strange Fruit” (1939) stored in the National Recording Registry as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
- The U.S. Postal Service came out with a Billie Holiday postage stamp in 1994.
- Billie Holiday’s critically acclaimed song “Strange Fruit” (derived from an anti-lynching poem) got mentioned on the list of Songs of the Century by the National Endowment for the Arts.
- According to VH1, Billie Holiday ranks as the sixth greatest artist on the list of 100 Greatest Women in Rock n’ Roll.