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The World Mourns Famous Jazz Singer Billie Holiday: July 17, 1959

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Billie Holiday The morning of July 17, 1959, many people were waking up and hearing the news that the famous jazz singer, Billie Holiday died at New York's Metropolitan Hospital. She was admitted on May 31, 1959 for congestion of the lungs and heart failure.

Billie Holiday was born on April 7, 1915 with the birth name of Eleanora Fagen, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her mother, Sadie Fagen was only thirteen years old when she gave birth to her and they spent most of her childhood in Baltimore, Maryland. Her mother married a man by the name of Philip Gough when she was five years old, but a few years later they were divorced.

Billie Holiday was raised a Roman Catholic. At the age of nine years old, she started to skip school, because of her truancy, he mother had to go to court and she was sent to The House of the Good Shepherd, which was a Catholic reform school. When she was ten years old, she claimed she was raped and was returned to her Mother's care.

In the late 1920's she moved with her mother to New York City and around 1930, she began to sing in local clubs of Harlem and gave herself a new name, “Billie" after the movie star Billie Dove. She first recorded with Benny Goodman in 1933 when she was 18 years old and John Hammond was the one who discovered her talent. In 1935 she recorded “Miss Brown You." She also performed at the New York's famous jazz club called The Apollo and sang with Artie Shaw, Count Basie, and many others. She became one of the first women to work with a white orchestra. She met a saxophonist, Lester Young and recorded with him. He gave her the nickname Lady Day, Queen of Song.

In 1939, she introduced the songs “Strange Fruit," and “God Bless the Child" and recorded her first major session at Commodore. In the 1940's she started to use heroin and opium which really started to decline her health. She married trombonist, Jim Monroe who was a small-time drug dealer on August 25, 1941 and eventually they were divorced. In 1944, she recorded her second major session at Commodore and signed with Decca Records. In 1946, she stared in the film “New Orleans."

She went to jail in 1947, for drug charges and had to serve eight months at the Alderson Federal Correctional Institution for Women in West Virginia. She ended up having her New York City Cabaret Card revoked, which she was unable to work in clubs there for the rest of her life. On March 28, 1952, Billie Holiday married Louis McKay. He was a Mafia “enforcer" and was abusive, but did attempt to get her off drugs.

From 1952 to 1959 she recorded approximately 100 new recordings for Verve. Her voice started to become more rugged during this time period due to the drugs and drinking. In 1959, she made her final studio recordings with MGM and gave her final performance in New York City. On May 31, 1959 she was admitted to Metropolitan Hospital in New York suffering from liver and heart disease. She ended up being arrested for drug possession and was on hospital arrest while she was dying because someone allegedly found heroin in her hospital room. They even took her flowers and notes from the hospital room and her record player. On July 17, 1959 at 3:20 in the morning, she died of cirrhosis of the liver. She only had seventy cents in the bank and $750.00 taped to her leg.

On July 18, 1959, thousands of mourners came together to pay tribute to the legendary Billie Holiday. The memorial was at St. Paul's the Apostle Church at 60th Street and Columbus Avenue. Reverend Joseph Troy who was the pastor of the church and the assistance of two other priests held the funeral mass. There were forty honorary pallbearers, which included Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson, Juanita Hall, Mary Lou Williams, Tony Scott, Joe Jones, and Bobby Tucker. She was separated from her husband, Louis McCay when she died.

After her death, in 1972, Diana stars as Holiday in the film “Lady Sings the Blues" which was produced by Brad Dexter, Jay Weston, and James S. White and directed by Sidney J. Furie. The movies also stared Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor. You can find the dvd to purchase on amazon.com.

In 1988 U2 released the Billie Holiday tribute song “Angel of Harlem" which was the second single released from U2's 1988 album, Rattle and Hum.

In 2000 Billie Holiday was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the fifteenth annual induction dinner where Diana Ross was her presenter.

Billie Holiday was around then and is still around today in our minds, heart, and in spirit.


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