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Billie Holiday

Born Eleanora Fagan on 7 April 1915 and abandoned by her parents as a baby, former teenage prostitute Billy Holiday’s troubled upbringing in 1920’s Maryland remains pivotal to one of the greatest jazz voices of the 20th century.

Billie got a job as a maid but began frequenting nightclubs and jazz haunts and dabbling in prostitution.

At 22 she joined Count Basie and his band but had a row and was fired a year later. Then she joined bandleader Artie Shaw.

Billie embarked on a musical career that was dogged by personal turmoil, including heroin addiction and an abusive marriage to a Mafia enforcer.

She served a term for narcotics possession, being sent in 1947 to the Women’s Prison in Alderson, West Virginia.

After she was released, each time she came off heroin she turned to gin with a greater vengeance.

In 1959, she collapsed after two numbers at a Greenwich Village concert and went into hospital with cardiac failure and liver problems.

Police searched her hospital room as she lay dying of a kidney infection and cirrhosis of the liver – after a nurse claimed she found white powder specks on Billie’s nose – and claimed to have found a packet of heroin.


She was charged with possession and – technically at least – placed under arrest. The police placed a guard by her door and her flowers, radio, magazines and personal possessions were confiscated.

Lady Day, as she was known, died on 17 July 1959 at the age of 44, leaving behind a legacy of performances that mirrored a lifetime of drugs, violence and heartache.  The official cause of death was listed as lung congestion complicated by heart failure.

She had just $750 to her name when she passed away.

Her life story was released in 1972 as a film, Lady Sings The Blues, starring Diana Ross as Billie Holiday.