Billie Holiday


To understand the controversy that Billie presented one must first go to the root or source of such controversy and examine Billie's childhood. Billie was born Eleanora Harris to her father Clarence Holiday and mother Sadie Fagan who were just fifteen and thirteen years old, respectively, at the time (A 91). Born between 1912 and 1915 in Baltimore, the date unsure, Billie grew up without her father, who moved away early on in her life.
Billie and her mother used to fight a lot, when her mother was around. Much of the time Billie was left in the care of relatives or friends, many of whom were unloving (E). Billie's relationship with her family was very weak, as Billie throughout her life and career never or rarely got family approval or recognition (W 13). The extent to which Billie did not get along with her family is evident as she was chastised for her grandmother's death at the age of six (E). The turmoil within Billie's family was manifested when Billie commented later on in life that "As far as I'm Concerned, all the Fagans are dead" (W 14). This made her family very mad and lead to their further abandonment of Billie. Aside from the superficial tension between Billie and her mother, they did their best to remain loyal to one another and provide for each other (W 201).
As Billie grew older, life grew harder and reality slowly became more and more real for her. At age 10, Billie was raped, further strengthening Billie's image of reality. As Billie grew older she became carefree and grew to have a strong temper. One musician remembers Billie as "a child, 11 or 12 years old, shouting the worst words she knew in the street, anxious to be grown up" (W 35). And on the numerous occasions when Billie's mother was out of town, she would be out having fun without any worries.
Billie grew accustomed to using men to get money. Billie would pick up guys, pretending to be a hooker, and then she and her friend would jump him and take his money (W 28). "She became a fast woman. She wanted fast money, fast life" (W 26). Her life did become faster and faster as Billie was brought further down into the truths of the world when Billie became a prostitute. "[Billie] ran errands for a brothel in Philadelphia and in 1927 moved to New York, where for the next three years she earned a living as a prostitute" (E). These aspects of Billie's life molded her attitude towards life in the future, and her future decisions and goals. These influences became her boundaries, her disposition, and in some cases, her limitations.
Educationally, Billie was deprived. Never getting beyond the fifth grade, Billie was the victim of the educational restrictions that were imposed on many of those who dwelt in Black Ghettos (BB 67). As Billie grew older her education became a limitation. "This woman's talent and her looks, and yet in some ways she really had the mind of a 12-year-old" (BB 67). This lack of education would haunt Billie later in her career, a startling reminder of her childhood, and its definite shortcomings of providing safety, an education, and a moral base.
Musically, Billie grew up listening to the blues, although it never really was her type of music. Billie loved listening to Jazz records as a child, early influences including Louis Armstrong. Eventually, Billie moved on to attempt a singing career. "Inspired by her love of singing, she talked the manager of a club into letting her sing a few tunes with the house band- she made $57 in tips" (E). In this way, Billie was motivated to become a singer, a decision that will prove not only to be beneficial to her, but also to be a risk factor that would threaten her health.