Born Eleanora Fagan, Holiday was born into poverty and was working by the age of six. She was raped when she was ten and then sent to a home. By fourteen she was in jail for prostitution.
Eleanora Fagan Holiday was born on 15 April 1915 into poverty in Philadelphia as her mother was just 13 and was not married to her father. As her mother often took jobs serving on the passenger railroads, Holiday was left in the care of her aunt's mother-in-law Martha Miller. For the first ten years of her life she felt the effects of her mother's absence.
Before her tenth birthday, Holiday was sent before juvenile court for frequently playing truant from school after which she was sent to live at a Catholic reform school. Nine months later, she was paroled and started working at a restaurant with her mother before leaving school at the age of 11. In 1926, Holiday was raped by a neighbour and sent back to the Catholic reform school before living with a madam and working as a prostitute, for which she was arrested at the age of 14.
In 1928, Holiday took a job as a singer at Jerry Preston's Log Cabin in New York City. She found she had a powerful voice, full of expression, but she was unable to settle into a job and moved from nightclub to nightclub. At this time, she took the stage name 'Billy' from the actress Billy Dove. She never had technical training and never learned to read music but she soon became an active participant in the vibrant New York jazz scene.
In 1932, Holiday was heard by a jazz producer, John Hammond. Her first songs were Son-In-Law and Riffin' the Scotch, released in 1933, which sold 300 and 5,000 copies respectively. Other hits included What A Little Moonlight Can Do and Miss Brown To You, which helped establish Holiday as an artist in her own right.
Holiday started recording for Columbia and, by 1937, she was producing some of the greatest recordings of her career, with Buck Clayton and Lester Young who nicknamed her 'Lady Day'. One of her biggest singles of this period was I Cried For You, which sold 15,000 copies.
Holiday went on a brief tour with Artie Shaw's Orchestra, but had to deal with so much racism that she gave up and went back to New York. She then recorded Strange Fruit, an anti-racist song about the lynching of a black man, which made an incredible impact whenever she sung it.
As Holiday's career reached new heights, she became more depressed. In 1942, she married James Monroe, but their marriage was violent and abusive. Holiday became addicted to heroin and opium, and her lifestyle affected her music.
From 1944, Holiday recorded with Decca, and made some of her most famous tracks, such as God Bless The Child, Don't Explain and Lover Man. She spent most of 1947 in prison for heroin possession and, as a result, lost her cabaret license.
While her exposure was limited, her seemingly glamorous lifestyle and reputation helped her popularity grow. However, her lifestyle had a more devastating effect on her voice and, by the 1950s, her voice sounded broken and tired. However, Holiday continued to record and, in 1958, released the album Lady In Satin. Over this period, she made 100 new recordings with Columbus and toured Europe. She made her final recordings with MGM in 1959.
In 1959, Holiday was hospitalised, and on 17 July she died of cirrhosis of the liver, aged just 44 and with only 70 cents in the bank, having been swindled out of her earnings. In 1973, she was posthumously inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame.