Hard times were a steady theme in the life of Jazz singer Billie Holiday, and that was true from the time she was born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia, Pa., to a teenage mother. Raised without a father in Baltimore, Md., she was taken in by relatives while her mother scratched out a meager living working menial service jobs on the passenger rail lines. Holiday dropped out of school by age 11, moving with her mother to New York City shortly thereafter.
A devotee of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, Holiday began singing in Harlem nightclubs in her late teens. Her spare, haunting vocal style eventually attracted the attention of legendary record man John Hammond, who called her "the first girl singer I'd come across who actually sang like an improvising Jazz genius." (For his part, speaking in 1958 Frank Sinatra famously called Holiday "the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years.")
Through the 1930s, Holiday worked steadily with such bandleaders as Teddy Wilson, Count Basie and Artie Shaw. By the end of the decade she was a popular recording star in her own right. As a performer, she made a habit of ending each concert with the song "Strange Fruit," based on a poem about lynching written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx. She performed the song as part of her act for 20 years.
Holiday performed and recorded regularly through the remainder of her life, despite being plagued by alcohol and heroin addiction, legal troubles and destructive relationships. Hard living took its final toll in 1959, when Holiday died from heart failure caused by cirrhosis of the liver.