Billie Holiday —"Lady Day" —is the preeminent female jazz vocalist. From her artistic heyday in the mid-'30s through the following two decades of misfortune and drug addiction, Holiday continually rewrote the rules for jazz singing. Her voice was distinguished neither by power nor tonal beauty but by a superb, unerring ability to improvise melodic lines from the framework of standard songs; to subtly twist rhythm and expertly manipulate melody in order to personalize every song she sang. Revered for the directness and wrenching honesty of her work, Holiday relied on drama rather than sentiment to express the emotional content of her material.
Clarence Holiday, Billie's errant father, was a guitarist for Florence Henderson's big band. As a child, Holiday did odd jobs for a local brothel in order to hear recordings of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong that were played there. Her parents already split up and her mother impoverished, Holiday's adolescence turned into a nightmare when, after being raped at age 10, she was accused of being "provocative" and sent to a reformatory.
Holiday moved to New York City in the late '20s, taking any singing jobs she could find around Harlem. Influential talent scout/producer John Hammond heard Holiday in 1933 and set up her first recording session, which included Benny Goodman as one of the supporting musicians. In 1935, Holiday began working with Teddy Wilson, Goodman's featured pianist. For Holiday's recordings Wilson would handpick players from the cream of the prominent big bands; it was at these sessions that Holiday developed her remarkable rapport with Count Basie's brilliant tenor saxophonist Lester Young. These Columbia recordings, which extend into the mid-'40s, are generally considered Holiday's finest work, and include such songs as "Miss Brown to You," "He's Funny That Way," "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," and "God Bless the Child" (which she helped to compose).
Holiday joined Count Basie's big band for one year in 1937, signing on next with white clarinetist Artie Shaw's band. Racial restrictions —Holiday wasn't allowed to enter hotels from the same entrance as the rest of the band —revolted her, and she soon quit. Holiday led her own groups until the end of her career.
Holiday's fame blossomed in 1939 during her extended engagement at New York's Café Society, the first interracial nightclub. That year she also recorded (for Commodore Records) "Strange Fruit," a signature ballad about prejudice and lynching in the South. In 1944 Holiday left Columbia to record for Decca. During this time, Holiday's heroin addiction led to several serious legal bouts. She was imprisoned for a year and afterward was prohibited from playing New York nightclubs. Holiday's personal life was also in disarray, owing to her self-destructive attraction to abusive and manipulative men.
Although Holiday's voice was by now worn from years of drugs and drink, her Verve recordings from the '50s capture some of her most moving and nuanced performances. By 1959, Holiday's hard living caught up to her. On her deathbed, Holiday was arrested for heroin possession in the New York City hospital where she was being treated for kidney disease and subsequently died.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).