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Billie Holiday's grandfather was one of 17 children
of a black Virginia slave and a white Irish plantation owner. Her mother was
only 13 when she was born.
The future "Lady Day" first heard the music of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith on a Victrola at Alice Dean's, the Baltimore "house of ill repute" where she ran errands and scrubbed floors as a young girl. She made her singing debut in obscure Harlem nightclubs (borrowing her professional name from screen star Billie Dove), then toured with Count Basie and Artie Shaw before going solo. Benny Goodman dragged the frightened singer to her first studio session. Between 1933 and 1944, she recorded over 200 "sides," but she never received royalties for any of them.
Despite a lack of technical training, Holiday's unique diction, inimitable phrasing and acute dramatic intensity made her the outstanding jazz singer of her day. White gardenias, worn in her hair, became her trademark.
"Singing songs like the 'The Man I Love' or 'Porgy' is no more work than sitting down and eating Chinese roast duck, and I love roast duck," she wrote in her autobiography. "I've lived songs like that." Her own compositions included "God Bless the Child," espousing the virtues of financial independence and "Don't Explain," lament on infidelity.
Billie Holiday, a musical legend still popular today, died an untimely death at the age of 44.