Billie Holiday - Death, Style, Hits, References

Article Index



By early 1959 Holiday had cirrhosis of the liver. She stopped drinking on doctor's orders, but soon relapsed.[87] By May she had lost 20 pounds (9 kg). Friends, jazz critic Leonard Feather, her manager Joe Glaser, and photojournalist and editor Allan Morrison unsuccessfully tried to get her to a hospital.[88]

On May 31, 1959, Holiday was taken to Metropolitan Hospital in New York for treatment of liver and heart disease. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, under the order of Harry J. Anslinger, had been targeting Holiday since at least 1939.[89] She was arrested and handcuffed for drug possession as she lay dying, and her hospital room was raided.[89] Police guarded her room. Holiday continued staying under police guard. On July 15, she received the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church,[90] before dying two days later on July 17, 1959 at 3:10 a.m. from pulmonary edema and heart failure caused by cirrhosis of the liver.[91][92] In her final years, she had been progressively swindled out of her earnings, and she died with $0.70 in the bank and $750 (a tabloid fee) on her person. Her funeral mass was on July 21, 1959 at Church of St. Paul the Apostle in Manhattan. She was buried at Saint Raymond's Cemetery in the Bronx.

Gilbert Millstein of The New York Times, who had been the narrator at Billie Holiday's 1956 Carnegie Hall concerts and had partly written the sleeve notes for the album The Essential Billie Holiday (see above), described her death in these same 1961-dated sleeve notes:

Billie Holiday died in Metropolitan Hospital, New York, on Friday, July 17, 1959, in the bed in which she had been arrested for illegal possession of narcotics a little more than a month before, as she lay mortally ill; in the room from which a police guard had been removed – by court order – only a few hours before her death, which, like her life, was disorderly and pitiful. She had been strikingly beautiful, but she was wasted physically to a small, grotesque caricature of herself. The worms of every kind of excess – drugs were only one – had eaten her. The likelihood exists that among the last thoughts of this cynical, sentimental, profane, generous and greatly talented woman of 44 was the belief that she was to be arraigned the following morning. She would have been, eventually, although possibly not that quickly. In any case, she removed herself finally from the jurisdiction of any court here below.[93]

Vocal style and range

Holiday's delivery made her performances recognizable throughout her career. Her improvisation compensated for lack of musical education. Her voice lacked range and was thin, and years of drug use altered its texture and gave it a fragile, raspy sound. Holiday said that she always wanted her voice to sound like an instrument and some of her influences were Louis Armstrong and singer Bessie Smith.[94][full citation needed] Her last major recording, a 1958 album entitled Lady in Satin, features the backing of a 40-piece orchestra conducted and arranged by Ray Ellis, who said of the album in 1997:

I would say that the most emotional moment was her listening to the playback of "I'm a Fool to Want You." There were tears in her eyes ... After we finished the album I went into the control room and listened to all the takes. I must admit I was unhappy with her performance, but I was just listening musically instead of emotionally. It wasn't until I heard the final mix a few weeks later that I realized how great her performance really was.[95]

Frank Sinatra was influenced by her performances on 52nd Street as a young man. He told Ebony in 1958 about her impact:

With few exceptions, every major pop singer in the US during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius. It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me. Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years.[96]


Billie Holiday recorded extensively for four labels: Columbia Records, issued on its subsidiary labels Brunswick Records, Vocalion Records, and OKeh Records, from 1933 through 1942; Commodore Records in 1939 and 1944; Decca Records from 1944 through 1950; briefly for Aladdin Records in 1951; Verve Records and on its earlier imprint Clef Records; from 1952 through 1957, then again for Columbia Records from 1957 to 1958 and finally for MGM Records in 1959. Many of Holiday's recordings appeared on 78 rpm records prior to the long-playing vinyl record era, and only Clef, Verve, and Columbia issued Holiday albums during her lifetime that were not compilations of previously released material. Many compilations have been issued since her death; as well as comprehensive box sets and live recordings.[97][98]

Hit records

In 1986, Joel Whitburn's Record Research, Inc. company compiled information on the popularity of record releases from the pre-rock and roll era and created pop charts dating all the way back to the beginning of the commercial recording industry. The company's findings were published in the book Pop Memories 1890–1954. Several of Holiday's records are listed on the pop charts Whitburn created.[99]

Billie Holiday began her recording career on a high note with her first major release "Riffin' the Scotch" selling 5,000 copies. The song was released under the band name "Benny Goodman & his Orchestra."[99]

Most of Holiday's early successes were released under the band name "Teddy Wilson & his Orchestra." During her stay in Wilson's band, Holiday would sing a few bars and then other musicians would have a solo. Teddy Wilson, one of the most influential jazz pianists from the swing era,[100] accompanied Holiday more than any other musician. He and Holiday have 95 recordings together.[101]

In July 1936, Holiday began releasing sides under her own name. These songs were released under the band name "Billie Holiday & Her Orchestra."[102] Most noteworthy, the popular jazz standard "Summertime," sold well and was listed on the available pop charts at the time at number 12, the first time the jazz standard charted under any artist. Only Billy Stewart's R&B version of "Summertime" reached a higher chart placement than Holiday's, charting at number 10 thirty years later in 1966.[103]

Holiday had 16 best selling songs in 1937, making the year her most commercially successful. It was in this year that Holiday scored her sole number one hit as a featured vocalist on the available pop charts of the 1930s, "Carelessly". The hit "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm", was also recorded by Ray Noble, Glen Gray and Fred Astaire whose rendering was a best seller for weeks.[104] Holiday's version ranked 6 on the year-end single chart available for 1937.[44]

In 1939, Holiday recorded her biggest selling record, "Strange Fruit" for Commodore, charting at number 16 on the available pop charts for the 1930s.[105]

In 1940, Billboard began publishing its modern pop charts, which included the Best Selling Retail Records chart, the precursor to the Hot 100. None of Holiday's songs placed on the modern pop charts, partly because Billboard only published the first ten slots of the charts in some issues. Minor hits and independent releases had no way of being spotlighted.

"God Bless the Child", which went on to sell over a million copies, ranked number 3 on Billboard's year-end top songs of 1941.[45]

On October 24, 1942, Billboard began issuing its R&B charts. Two of Holiday's songs placed on the chart, "Trav'lin' Light" with Paul Whiteman, which topped the chart, and "Lover Man", which reached number 5.

"Trav'lin' Light" also reached 18 on Billboard's year-end chart.


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  • Blackburn, Julia (2006). With Billie: A New Look at the Unforgettable Lady Day. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 0-375-40610-7.

  • Chilton, John (1989). Billie's Blues: The Billie Holiday Story 1933–1959. New York: Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80363-1.

  • Clarke, Donald (2000). Billie Holiday: Wishing on the Moon. Cambridge: Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-81136-7.

  • Davis, Angela Y. (1998). Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. New York: Random House. ISBN 0-679-77126-3.

  • Gourse, Leslie (2000). The Billie Holiday Companion: Seven Decades of Commentary. New York: Schirmer Trade Books. ISBN 0-02-864613-4.

  • Griffin, Farah Jasmine (2001). If You Can't Be Free, Be A Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday. New York: Random House. ISBN 0-684-86808-3.

  • Holiday, Billie; Dufty, William (1957). Lady Sings the Blues. New York: Doubleday. ISBN 0-14-006762-0.

  • Ingham, Chris (2000). Billie Holiday. Darby, Pennsylvania: Diane Publishing. ISBN 1-56649-170-3.

  • James, Burnett (1984). Billie Holiday. Gloucestershire, England: Spellmount Publishers. ISBN 0-946771-05-7.

  • Kaplan, Samuel W. (February 2002). "Strange Fruit". Humanity & Society. Volume 26, No. 1. pp. 77–83.

  • Katz, Joel (2002). California Newsreel: Strange Fruit.

  • Millar, Jack (1994). Fine and Mellow: A Discography of Billie Holiday. London: Billie Holiday Circle. ISBN 1-899161-00-7.

  • Nicholson, Stuart (1995). Billie Holiday. Boston: Northeastern University Press. ISBN 1-55553-303-5.

  • O'Meally, Robert (1991). Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday. New York: Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0-306-80959-0. OCLC 45009756.

  • Szwed, John (2015). Billie Holiday: The Musician and The Myth. New York: Viking. ISBN 978-0670014729.

Official Billie Holiday at Sony BMG