Billie Holiday, bom Eleonora Fagan in Baltimore, Maryland, was easily one of the most beguiling singers of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. She started singing publicly in Jer¬ ry Preston’s Log Cabin Club at the age of 15, but people remember her voice from long before that. Singing at the Hot-Cha Bar and Grill in Harlem, Billie was heard by Ralph Cooper, who reported her tal¬ ent to Frank Schiffman, owner of the Apollo.
Getting her first gig at the Apollo in 1934, backed up by Bobby Henderson on piano, “Lady Day,” who had already appeared in Paul Robe¬ son’s film The Emperor Jones (see no. 57) and a short film with Duke Ellington (see no. 58)“tore the house down.”Already living fast and hard, Billie sang with Count Basie, Artie Shaw, and everyone else known for making music in the 1930s.
By the 1940s Billie was famous in her own right, singing solo all over the country. She was named Esquire’s top female vocalist in 1944 and 1945, and had recorded with Ben¬ ny Goodman, Basie, Shaw and Eddie Hey- wood. Her recordings of “Lover Man” and “Strange Fruit” sold over a million copies, and her recordings of hits “Gloomy Sun¬ day,” “I Cover the Waterfront,” “Am I Blue?” and a hundred others are still con¬ sidered major influences in the careers of contemporary stars.
Frank Sinatra said of her performances in the famous 52nd Street clubs in New York City: “With few exceptions, every major pop singer in the US during her gen¬ eration has been touched in some way by her genius. It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me.”
Currently available retrospective group¬ ings of her work include Billie Holiday (1959), the Golden Years, two volumes of collected material from 1933-1942 (1962), Lady Day, collected work from 1935-1937 that appeared in the mid-1950s, and Lady in Satin (1958).
Though Billie’s success as a singer was magical, her life was a constant struggle. Battling with drug addiction and a passion for hard living, Billie relied heavily on her friends and fellow musicians to support her. Her autobiography, The Lady Sings the Blues (1956), was written with journal¬ ist William Dufty, and the movie of the same name, starring Diana Ross, was released in 1972.