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Billie Holiday

A Singer Beyond Our Understanding

Similar to the founding principles of the blues, Billie Holiday’s life was marred with both the harsh realities of personal woes and boisterous changes of tempo. Nicknamed “Lady Day,” the Philadelphia-born singer used her tumultuous life experiences to create timeless jazz records. Considered by many to be one of the greatest jazz vocalists of all time, and within her music, her style became so unique that she altered the genre norm with songs like “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Strange Fruit,” and “All of Me.” She also set jazz standards with songs like “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Easy Living.”

Holiday left employment as a maid to pursue work as a dancer in Harlem nightclubs. At one of those clubs, she was asked to sing. She quickly began singing in many of the Harlem nightclubs and soon established a following of admirers, despite having had no formal musical training.

Holiday’s career began to grow, thanks in part to the interest of John Hammond of Columbia Records, who organized her first recording with Benny Goodman in 1933. She debuted at the Apollo Theater in 1935 and began recording under her own name in 1936.

Holiday toured extensively in 1937 and 1938 with the Count Basie and Artie Shaw bands. While on tour, Holiday was often subjected to discrimination.

Holiday won five Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Nesuhi Ertugan Jazz Hall of Fame in 2004

Perhaps Holiday’s most notable collaborations were with legendary saxophonist Lester Young, who gave Holiday her moniker “Lady Day.” Together, they created some of the most important jazz music of all time. Of her groundbreaking vocal style and delivery, Holiday once said, “I hate straight singing. I have to change a tune to my own way of doing it. That’s all I know.”

As both a vocalist and a songwriter, Holiday penned God Bless the Child and Lady Sings the Blues, among others. Her interpretation of the anti-lynching poem Strange Fruit was included in the list of Songs of the Century by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, was written in 1956. She won five Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 and the Nesuhi Ertugan Jazz Hall of Fame in 2004.

Holiday, known for her deeply moving and personal vocals, remains a popular musical legend more than fifty years after her death. Despite personal obstacles, Holiday inspired many with her vocal gifts and continues to be recognized as a seminal influence on music.