Happy Black History Month! This is the 14th blog of a series of blogs called “Black History Month Heroes You Should Know”. Each blog focuses on the life and career of a Black American whose life has shaped American history.
The focus of today’s blog is Billie Holiday, one of the most iconic jazz singers in U.S. history. She performed what scholars consider to be the first protest song of the civil rights era: “Strange Fruit”.
Joining the Harlem Renaissance
Born Eleanora Fagan Gough in 1915, Billie Holiday spent the first part of her life in Baltimore. During her teens, Billie’s mother moved the family to New York (BillieHolidayBio). While there, Billie began performing in nightclubs around Harlem and alongside resident pianists at bars. Around this time, Eleanora chose the stage name Billie Holiday inspired from actress Billie Dove. She then became one of the many voices of the Harlem Renaissance (BillieHolidayBio).
Working With The Greats
Holiday first began work with a record company in 1933 after producer John Hammond discovered her talent (BillieHolidayBio). She worked with pianist Teddy Wilson, clarinetist Benny Goodman, and Lester Young, who deemed her “Lady Day”. In 1937, Holiday joined the tour with Count Basie Orchestra out of Kansas City. In 1938, Holiday became the first Black woman to perform with a white band with Artie Shaw’s orchestra. After writing “God Bless The Child” in 1939, Holiday got the opportunity to record duets with her own hero, Louis Armstrong. During the 1940s, she worked with him in music and also on screen for the film “New Orleans” (BillieHolidayBio).
It was during this time that Holiday became introduced to a poem called “Strange Fruit.” It used vivid imagery to speak on the horrific lynchings occurring during this time in the Reconstruction era. Holiday wanted to sing it, but her record company at the time told her it was too controversial, so she left to record it at independent studio Commodore Records (BillieHolidayBio).
This song eventually caught the attention of known racist Federal Bureau of Narcotics agent Harry Anslinger. He blackmailed Holiday, trying to get her to stop performing the song (Politico). He learned of her drug history and through manipulation, he got Billie Holiday convicted of drug charges in 1947. A year later, when she was released, the government refused to reinstate her performer’s license, so she could no longer perform where alcohol was served (Progressive).
This is her singing the song in 1959:
Years Before Death
The 1950s marked a pivotal point in Holiday’s career, as she recorded at least 100 new recordings, toured Europe, and appeared on television several times (BillieHolidayBio). One time on CBS’s “The Sound of Jazz” and another time on the “Tonight Show with Steve Allen”. During this time, her sound began to evolve a bit, becoming more intimate and rugged (BillieHolidayBio).
A year before her death, she moved to Columbia Records where she wrote and recorded her last album “Lady in Satin”. These songs were released after her death in 1959. Billie Holiday passed away as an American jazz legend at age 44. Her trademark while singing was wearing a white gardenia in her hair (BillieHolidayBio).
Watch The United States VS. Billie Holiday on Hulu.