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Billie Holiday

Despite a relatively short career, the singing style of Billie Holiday revolutionized jazz vocal performance. Born in 1915 in Philadelphia, Holiday was mostly raised by the mother-in-law of her mother’s half-sister until the age of ten. At twelve she worked running errands at a brothel, where she first came into contact with the jazz music of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. In early 1929 Holiday went to Harlem, where her mother was living, became a prostitute, and was subsequently arrested and placed in a workhouse. She started singing at clubs in her early teens and in 1929 worked with saxophone player Kenneth Hollan. In 1932 Holiday sang at Covan’s, where she was heard by producer John Hammond—who organized her first recording sessions with Benny Goodman’s orchestra in November 1933. “Riffin’ the Scotch” from these sessions became her first big hit and raised her reputation among jazz musicians. In 1935 she was signed to Brunswick Records by Hammond with the intent of having her record pop songs for jukebox play. Allowed to improvise, Holiday developed a unique style of singing that was influenced by the instrumental performances of jazz musicians. Through 1938, Holiday’s work with pianist Teddy Wilson helped to establish Brunswick as a premier label for jazz. In 1937 she worked with Count Basie’s big band and developed a singing persona, becoming a de facto coleader of the band. In 1939 Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit,” a topical mediation on lynching, for Commodore Records. The song became a hit and Holiday’s premiere performance at Café Society became a historic moment. Through the 1940s, Holiday continued to have charting singles, including “God Bless the Child,” and sold out Carnegie Hall in 1948. In 1947 she was arrested for possession of narcotics, which led to the revoking of her cabaret card and limited the venues in which she could perform. In the 1950s she continued to struggle with drugs but recorded for Verve and wrote an autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, in 1956. In 1959 Holiday died of cirrhosis and received a bevy of posthumous awards and accolades.