Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Harris April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959) was an American jazz singer and songwriter. Nicknamed “Lady Day” by her friend and musical partner Lester Young, Holiday had a seminal influence on jazz and pop singing. Her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo. Critic John Bush wrote that Holiday “changed the art of American pop vocals forever.” She co-wrote only a few songs, but several of them have become jazz standards, notably “God Bless the Child”, “Don’t Explain”, “Fine and Mellow”, and “Lady Sings the Blues”. She also became famous for singing “Easy Living”, “Good Morning Heartache”, and “Strange Fruit”, a protest song which became one of her standards and was made famous with her 1939 recording. Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Sarah Julia “Sadie” Fagan (née Harris). Her father, Clarence Halliday (Holiday), a musician, did not marry or live with her mother. Her mother had moved to Philadelphia at the age of thirteen, after being rejected from her parents’ home in Sandtown-Winchester, Baltimore for becoming pregnant. With no support from her own parents, Holiday’s mother arranged for the young Holiday to stay with her older married half sister, Eva Miller, who lived in Baltimore.Billie Holiday at two years old, in 1917 Billie Holiday had a difficult childhood. Her mother often took what were then known as “transportation jobs”, serving on the passenger railroads. Holiday was left to be raised largely by Eva Miller’s mother-in-law, Martha Miller, and suffered from her mother’s absences and leaving her in others’ care for much of the first ten years of her life. (Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, first published in 1956, was sketchy about details of her early life, but much was confirmed by Stuart Nicholson in his 1995 biography of the singer.) Some historians have disputed Holiday’s paternity, as a copy of her birth certificate in the Baltimore archives lists the father as “Frank DeViese”. Other historians consider this an anomaly, probably inserted by a hospital or government worker. Frank DeViese lived in Philadelphia and Sadie Harris may have known him through her work. Sadie Harris, then known as Sadie Fagan, married Philip Gough, but the marriage was over in two years. Holiday was left with Martha Miller again while her mother took further transportation jobs. Holiday frequently skipped school and her truancy resulted in her being brought before the juvenile court on January 5, 1925 when she was not yet 10. She was sent to The House of the Good Shepherd, a Catholic reform school. She was baptized there on March 19, 1925 and after nine months in care, was “paroled” on October 3, 1925 to her mother, who had opened a restaurant called the East Side Grill, where she and Holiday worked long hours. By the age of 11, the girl had dropped out of school.
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