Eleanora Fagan Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Billie Holiday is regarded by nearly all jazz musicians and enthusiasts as the greatest jazz singer in history, and all performers in this musical genre acknowledge a debt to her. Her impeccable timing and phrasing brought life and intensity to many an ordinary song, and her interpretations of popular songs, or standards, such as “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “The Man I Love” are touchstones of jazz. She had no formal musical training—or training of any other kind, for she dropped out of grade school—but she had a plaintive, compelling, almost childlike voice coupled with a constantly changing sense of interpretation that surprised the listener who was familiar with the basic song. She characteristically sang in a slow, languid, manner, lagging behind the beat even on fast-tempo songs, creating a tension between singer and musicians and emphasizing the improvisational and polyphonic sound which is the essence of jazz.{$S[A]Fagan, Eleanora;Holiday, Billie}

Billie Holiday, born Eleanora Fagan, was an illegitimate child. Fagan was her mother’s name and Holiday that of her father, who later married her mother but then drifted away again. Eleanora took her stage name, Billie, from her favorite film actress, Billie Dove. Weighted with the multiple burdens of being poor, illegitimate, black, and female, Billie Holiday developed a personality that both craved abuse (at first that was the only condition she experienced and understood) and dispensed that abuse, even to her friends—perhaps her only way of lashing back at the world that had caused her such pain.

Her early life was marked by commitment to a reform school for girls at the age of nine, prostitution, and general neglect. She began singing in Baltimore bars and eventually moved to New York, where her mother got a job as a maid. New York’s main black community was Harlem, then in the midst of a musical explosion. Band leaders such as Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway drew white audiences to nightclubs, while other black musicians sharpened their skills at the illegal bars known as speakeasies. Holiday first...

(The entire section is 856 words.)