Eleanora Fagan (some sources say Elinore Harris) is the birth name of legendary blues and jazz singer Billie Holiday (1915–1959), dubbed “Lady Day” by friend and saxophonist Lester “Prez” Young. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (some sources say Baltimore, Maryland), to teenage parents, Sadie Fagan and Clarence Holiday, she renamed herself after a favorite movie star, Billie Dove, and her musician father. Although she had no formal musical training, she had an instinctive sense of musical structure and gathered a wealth of experience at the root level of jazz and blues, ultimately developing a singing style that was deeply moving and individual. Among her well-known songs are "God Bless the Child," "Summertime," "Lover Man," "Fine and Mellow," "The Man I Love," "Billie's Blues," "I Wished on the Moon," and "My Man." The last of her many albums is Lady in Satin (1958), recorded with the Ray Ellis Orchestra.
Throughout her career, Billie sang with some of the best musicians of the day, beginning with clarinetist and bandleader Benny Goodman (1933) and including jazz pianist Teddy Wilson (1935), the Count Basie Orchestra (1937), and Artie Shaw and his orchestra (1938). Her peak recording years were from 1936 to 1942, and critics believe her best recordings were those with Lester Young, which highlight the interplay between a vocal line and an instrumental obbligato.
She appeared with Duke Ellington in the film Symphony in Black (1935) and with her idol Louis Armstrong in New Orleans (1947). In 1972, her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues (1956, with William Duffy) was made into a film starring Diana Ross.
It was at New York's plush Café Society (beginning in 1938) where Billie developed her signature style of wearing gardenias in her hair and singing with her head tilted back. It was also where she debuted the song "Strange Fruit," which told the story of the lynching of African Americans in the South. According to the story told in the film The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021), based on the book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs (2015) by Johann Hari, the federal government warned Billie not to sing this song but could not prevent her from performing it, so they set her up to arrest her on drug charges. The commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger, a well-known racist, pursued her for the rest of her life, even to her death in 1959, because of her addiction to drugs and alcohol. He said she represented everything America had to be afraid of.
Billie Holiday was one of the most influential jazz singers of all time and her legacy lives on—when Nina Simone covered “Strange Fruit,” U2 penned their hit “Angel of Harlem” (1988), the federal government placed her image on a United States postage stamp (1994), Time magazine awarded "Strange Fruit" the “Best Song of the Century” (1999), and Diana Ross inducted her into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the category Early Influences (2000).