You no doubt know that Billie Holiday is a bona fide legend in the music world. But here are a few things you might not know about the iconic songstress, who was born on April 7, 1915.
1. Billie Holiday once worked in a brothel.
Born to an unwed teenaged mother, Holiday—whose birth name was Eleanora Fagan—spent her early years living in abject poverty in Baltimore. “I never had a chance to play with dolls like other kids,” she once stated. “I started working when I was 6 years old.” At the age of 9, she was sent to a facility for troubled youth. She dropped out of school in the fifth grade and began working as an errand girl at a brothel. At the age of 12, Holiday moved to Harlem with her mother, where she was arrested for prostitution at the age of 15.
2. Billie Holiday auditioned to be a dancer and ended up a singer.
In 1932, desperate for money, Holiday—then just 16 years old—decided to pound the pavement in Harlem to scare up some quick cash. “One day we were so hungry we could barely breathe,” she once recalled. “It was cold as all-hell and I walked from 145th to 133rd [Street] … going in every joint trying to find work … I stopped in the Log Cabin Club run by Jerry Preston [and] told him I was a dancer. He said to dance. I tried it. He said I stunk. I told him I could sing. He said sing. Over in the corner was an old guy playing the piano. He struck ‘Trav'lin’ and I sang. The customers stopped drinking. They turned around and watched. The pianist swung into ‘Body and Soul.’ Jeez, you should have seen those people—all of them started crying. Preston came over, shook his head and said, ‘Kid, you win.’”
3. Billie Holiday was an early reality star.
Before there was The Real World, The Amazing Race, Survivor, or American Idol, there was The Comeback Story. Broadcast on ABC from 1953 to 1954, the black-and-white series was one of television’s first reality shows. In it, celebrities shared their true stories of how they found success, despite seemingly overwhelming adversity. Holiday appeared on the series's third episode, on October 16, 1953.
4. U2's "Angel of Harlem" is a tribute to Billie Holiday.
Miles Davis and John Coltrane are two of the jazz greats referenced in U2’s hit song “Angel of Harlem,” but the song itself—which appeared on 1988’s Rattle & Hum album—was written about Holiday. Hence the lyrics: “Lady Day got diamond eyes; She sees the truth behind the lies.” “Lady Day” was the nickname given to Holiday by saxophonist Lester Young.
5. Billie Holiday is responsible for the song of the century.
In 1999, TIME Magazine named Holiday’s original studio recording of “Strange Fruit,” a 1939 protest song against lynching that was originally written as a poem by Abel Meeropol, the “song of the century.” The song is also part of The Library of Congress's National Recording Registry and has been covered by various other artists, including Herbie Hancock and Nina Simone. (In 2013, Kanye West sampled Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit” in his song, “Blood on the Leaves.”)
A version of this story ran in 2019; it has been updated for 2022.