Historical Markers
Billie Holiday Historical Marker
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Billie Holiday

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
1409 Lombard Street, Philadelphia

Behind the Marker

"You can be up to your boobies in white satin, with gardenias in your hair and no sugar cane for miles, but you can still be working on a plantation."

-Billie Holiday, "Lady Sings the Blues"

Over and over again, Billie Holiday was beaten down, especially by the elements that affected her life the most, the music industry, racism, and the men in her life. At the height of her career in the early 1950s, Holiday had her Cabaret Card taken away after undercover agents arrested her on drug charges. At the time, a musician without a Cabaret Card could not work in New York City, and a musician who couldn't work in New York City couldn't make a living. She would not get it back until after Frank Sinatra defied the whole system by refusing to get one. Years later, Sinatra would say Holiday was his "greatest single musical influence."

Billie Holiday was born in Philadelphia, but only by the circumstance that Holiday's mother had gotten pregnant out of wedlock. After being put out of her parents' home in Baltimore, she went to Philadephia to give birth, then returned to Baltimore to raise her baby girl.

In the early 1920s, Baltimore was still very much a southern city where white people were still reluctant to grant African Americans their civil rights. When Holiday was a child, her mother struggled to earn a living by working as a domestic servant. As a teenager, Holiday was arrested and served jail time for prostitution.

Even during her teenage years, Holiday was gifted with her strong, beautiful voice and early in her life she was strongly influenced by Louis Armstrong and by the great Bessie Smith, the Queen of the Blues. From Armstrong, Smith and others, Holiday learned how to interpret a song and the phrasing of the words to transmit strong emotions and touch people's hearts.
Billie Holiday singing into a microphone on stage.
Portrait of Billie Holiday performing in 1947.

Holiday would become famous for her interpretations of slow, sad songs, which she sang with a haunting vibrato and a smoldering, smokey quality in her voice. One was "Gloomy Sunday" (1941) - a song about suicide. Another was "Strange Fruit," about the hundreds of African Americans who had been lynched and murdered in the United States, whom the song described as "strange fruit hanging from the Poplar trees."

With her uncanny sense of timing and phrasing, Holiday was able to make each song a very personal statement. One of the most important of all jazz vocalists, she was not merely a 'song stylist,' but a true musician.

Holiday is also known for her long friendship and collaborations with the great saxophone innovator Lester Young. Young claimed to take much of his style from Holiday. He copied her phrasing and approach to melody, and there is little doubt that Holiday in turn was influenced by Lester Young's incredible sound and his brilliant improvisations.

Billie Holiday also worked with many of the most important musicians of her time. She made records with white, jazz bandleader and clarinetist Benny Goodman, and with the great pianist Teddy Wilson. She sang with Count Basie's band, and with Artie Shaw, with whom she broke down many color barriers, for there had been few black singers featured in a white band before that time.

Despite her successes, marker Billie Holiday lived a tortured life, and sang her way through abusive marriages, drug addiction and depression. After years of drinking and heroin addiction, she died in 1959 at the age of forty-four.
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