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Billie Holiday, born Eleanora Fagan Gough in 1915, lived a remarkable, ground-breaking, and tragic life. She was raised in an impoverished section of Baltimore by her mother, her jazz guitarist father rarely around. After spending two years in reform school, she moved to Harlem with her mother where she ran errands in a brothel and later worked as a prostitute. Eventually, she went to a speakeasy looking for work as a dancer, but wound up singing instead. This launched a remarkable, international career where she appeared with Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Artie Shaw and other greats. At a time of segregation, she broke barriers – a black woman working with an all-white orchestra.
Tragically, throughout her remarkable life, Holiday suffered from alcohol and drug addiction. In 1947, she was arrested for heroin possession and sent to jail. When released months later, talent agent Ed Fishman convinced her to give a comeback concert at Carnegie Hall. Holiday thought no one would come. Instead, the concert was sold out.
Eventually, addiction was Holiday’s undoing. While laying on her hospital death bed suffering from related heart and liver failure, she was arrested for drug possession. The police raided her room and were stationed at the door. She died there in 1959.
Perhaps one of Holiday’s greatest recordings was “Strange Fruit.” Based on a poem about lynching in the South by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher, it underscores Holiday’s power and brilliance.
Billie Holiday was posthumously inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, which is a special Grammy award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least twenty-five years old, and that have “qualitative or historical significance.”
Billie Holiday: Grammy Hall of Fame Awards
Year Recorded Title Genre Label Year Inducted Notes
1944 “Embraceable You” Jazz (single) Commodore 2005
1958 Lady in Satin Jazz (album) Columbia 2000
1945 “Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?)” Jazz (single) Decca 1989
1939 “Strange Fruit” Jazz (single) Commodore 1978 Listed also in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress in 2002
1941 “God Bless the Child” Jazz (single) Okeh 1976
Grammy Best Historical Album
The Grammy Award for Best Historical Album has been presented since 1979.
2002 Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday Columbia 1933-1944 Winner
1994 The Complete Billie Holiday Verve 1945-1959 Winner
1992 Billie Holiday — The Complete Decca Recordings Verve 1944-1950 Winner
1980 Billie Holiday — Giants of Jazz Time-Life Winner
When Billie Holiday got her start in a speakeasy, candy was celebrating the speakeasy life. Here’s why: Many of the prohibition crowd were also anti-candy for a variety of reasons. Some had to do with class and the unwarranted power candy bestowed on poor kids and some with sugar’s role in fermentation (think: the popular saloon drink Rock n’ Rye made with rock candy) among many other reasons. So, candy-makers had some fun and named their candy after popular speakeasy cocktails. Here are a few: