THE RELEVANT QUEER: Grammy award-winning inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Billie Holiday, Born April 7, 1915

Billie Holiday circa 1940’s. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

“I never hurt nobody but myself and that’s nobody’s business but my own.”

TRQ: Billie Holiday, Born April 7, 1915

Grammy award-winning inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Billie Holiday was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and was raised in Baltimore, MD. After dropping out of the fifth grade to work as a housekeeper at a brothel, and being sexually assaulted at the age of ten, Holiday moved to Harlem moved to live with her mother in 1929. Both worked as prostitutes, earning $5 per client, and eventually serving time in prison. 

At the age of eighteen, however, Holiday was singing in Harlem clubs and recording songs with Benny Goodman. Building her name on an innovative style inspired by the tempo and improvisation of jazz instrumentation, she had signed a recording contract with Brunswick Records by the age of twenty and worked with some of the era’s greatest musicians. Holiday worked with the Count Basie Band and then the Artie Shaw Band. In 1935, she appeared in Duke Ellington’s film, Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life, as a woman abused by her lover. She and fellow jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald were often seen as competitors, even though the two would eventually become friends. 

In 1939, Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit,” originally an anti-lynching poem written by Abel Meeropol, and it became her first commercial hit. The song earned Holiday a mention in Time magazine. When she performed the song live, it would always be the last song of her show, with a spotlight on her face in an otherwise dark club, without encore. 

In 1941, Holiday had an affair with actor and director Orson Welles, but eventually married trombonist Jimmy Monroe. That year she also recorded another of her most well-known songs, “God Bless the Child.” The song was inspired by an argument with her mother, in which Holiday shouted “God bless the child that’s got his own” over her mother’s refusal to loan her daughter money. 

In the 1940’s however, Holiday would fall into drug abuse and face a series of legal troubles. 1946, during filming of her role in the film New Orleans, in which she co-starred with Louis Armstrong and Woody Herman, Holiday spent most of her money on an expensive heroin habit. Critics began to note that her new music consisted of more and more ballads, all with similar melody and tempo. 

In 1947, Holiday divorced Monroe, became involved with her drug dealer Joe Guy, a trumpeter, and was arrested for possession of narcotics. After her release Holiday performed in a sold-out show at Carnegie Hall in 1948, and was involved in an ongoing romantic relationship with Broadway actress Tallulah Bankhead, who attended many of Holiday’s shows at the Strand Theatre. In 1949, however, Holiday was again arrested for possession. 

Though she continued to perform and record during the 1950’s, Holiday’s health and voice had begun to suffer. In 1956, she released an autobiography with an accompanying album, Lady Sings the Blues, and she returned to Carnegie Hall for two performances. In 1957, Holiday married the abusive mafia man Louis McKay. She made her final studio recordings in 1959 but was diagnosed with cirrhosis and was taken to the Metropolitan Hospital in New York on May 31 for treatment. In the hospital, Holiday was arrested and handcuffed to her bed by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics until she died on July 17.

In 1972, Diana Ross earned an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Holiday in the biopic Lady Sings the Blues. In 1987 Holiday was award the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.

Billie Holiday circa 1940’s. Photo: Frank Driggs Collection/Getty Images




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