Billie Holiday was born in 1915, into a childhood that would
be difficult for her. It is said that her childhood had a deep
impact on her career and her life. She would go on to become arguably
one of the greatest of all jazz singers, but she was plagued with
the abuse of drugs.
Holiday had a childhood that has been described by conjecture
and through the reading of her autobiography. It's not clear whether
her mother and supposed father, the latter a jazz guitarist, were
ever even married, but he left when Billie was just an infant.
Billie became an angry youngster, dropping out of school at an
early age. She and her mother moved to New York in the 30's.
Holiday began singing in Harlem clubs on an informal basis, and
was discovered around the year 1932 by a record producer. The
exact producer is argued about, like much of her young life. She
had several sessions with Benny Goodman, and recorded "Your
Mother's Son-in-Law" in 1933. She also began successfully
performing live during those years. She worked with many legends
of jazz, although she still had to use the back entrance to clubs,
since she was black.
Lady Sings the Blues ...
Holiday experimented with recreational drugs quite a bit over
the years, and it is said that she had smoked marijuana by the
age of twelve or thirteen. Heroin would be the drug that affected
her the most, although it's not clear how she was introduced to
that drug. She started using intravenous drugs sometime near 1940.
Her success from that point on was
marred by her growing abuse of alcohol and drugs, as well
as being in relationships that were abusive. The drugs and
alcohol also affected her voice, but she still had an enormous
impact on other aspiring musical artists. Nina Simone and
Janis Joplin credit her with affecting their work, and Diana
Ross would play the Billie Holiday role in a movie called
"Lady Sings the Blues", which was based on Holiday's
Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do
Her personal life did not offer much escape from her addiction
to drugs. She would take several husbands through the years -
two at one time, in fact, although one was a common law husband.
They were all abusive to her to some degree. Her third husband,
Louis McKay, worked as an enforcer for the mafia. He abused her
as well, but also tried to get her to stop using drugs.
Holiday's late recordings were still often hits, along with those
songs performed in her younger days. Many of her songs reflected
the life she led, and they became jazz classics. But her last
years were filled with tragedy. She didn't have the cabaret card
that would allow her to work in clubs in New York City, and she
was also swindled out of much of her earnings. She would die a
poor woman, unable to overcome her addiction to drugs. She was
actually arrested right before she passed away. The cause of the
arrest was narcotic addiction. In those days, it was a crime to
be addicted, not an illness. She was buried in the Bronx, New