Musicheads Essential Artist: Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday performs in New York, Feb. 1947
Billie Holiday performing at the Downbeat Club in New York, Feb. 1947. (William P. Gottlieb Collection / U.S. Library of Congress)
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Musicheads Essential Artist: Billie Holiday
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Billie Holiday's soulfully unique singing style is considered to be one of the greatest jazz voices of all time.

As a young teenager, she started singing along with records by Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. Her true singing debut in Harlem nightclubs came after borrowing her professional name, Billie Holiday, from screen star Billie Dove.

With no technical training, never learning to read music, she became an active participant in what was then one of the most vibrant jazz scenes in the country, moving from club to club singing for tips. At age 18 she was spotted by John Hammond and cut her first record as part of a group led by Benny Goodman. A year later she began working with Lester Young, who bequeathed her the nickname Lady Day.

Holiday joined Count Basie in 1937, and then Artie Shaw the following year: she became the first Black woman to work with a white orchestra. While working with Columbia Records, she was first introduced to the poem "Strange Fruit," an emotional piece about the lynching of Black men.

"God Bless the Child" became Holiday's most popular and most covered record selling over a million copies. Her singular voice and ability to translate a wide range of emotions is forever remembered and continues to touch music lovers today.

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