Blog

Aaron Douglas was not the only famous African American artist during the Harlem Renaissance

Aaron Douglas was not the only famous African American artist during the Harlem Renaissance. Eleanora Fagan, better known as Billie Holiday, was an American jazz musician and singer-songwriter during the Harlem Renaissance. She was one of the most influential jazz singers of all time. Her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo. She was known for her vocal delivery and improvisational skills, which made up for her limited range and lack of formal music education.
Billy Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915, in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. She spent much of her childhood in Baltimore. Her father is widely believed to be Clarence Holiday, who eventually became a successful jazz musician. Unfortunately, not long after she was born, her father abandoned his family to pursue a career as a jazz banjo player and a guitarist.
She had a difficult childhood. Her mother was often gone, doing what were then known as transportation jobs, serving on passenger railroads. She was often left in the care of other people. Holiday frequently skipped school, and was sent to the House of Good Shepherd, a facility for troubled African American girls, in January 1925.
She was only 9 at the time, one of the youngest girls there. She returned home in August of that year. In her difficult early life, Holiday found solace in music. She followed her mother, who had moved to New York City in the late 1920s, and worked in a house of prostitution in Harlem for a time.
Around 1930, Holiday began singing in local clubs and renamed herself “Billie” after the film star Billie Dove. When she was 18, Holiday was discovered by producer John Hammond while she was performing in a Harlem Jazz club. Hammond got Holiday recording work with an up-and-coming clarinetist and bandleader Benny Goodman. With Goodman, she sang vocals for several tracks, including her first commercial release “Your Mother’s Son-In-Law” and the 1934 top ten hit “Riffin’ the Scotch.”
In 1935 Holiday went on to record with jazz pianist Teddy Wilson and others. The same year, Holiday appeared with Duke Ellington in the film Symphony in Black.
As her reputation grew, she wrote and sang hit songs. In 1944, when she scored an R&B hit with “Love Man”, her boyfriend at the time was trumpeter Joe Guy, and with him she started using heroin. After the death of her mother in October 1945, Holiday began drinking more heavily and escalated her drug use to ease her grieve.
Holiday gave her final performance in New York City on may 25, 1959. Not long after, she was admitted to the hospital for heart and liver problems. She was so addicted to heroin that she was even arrested for possession while in the hospital. On July 17, 1959, Holiday died from alcohol and drug-related complications.
Considered one of the best jazz vocalists of all time, Holiday has been an influence on many other performers who have followed in her footsteps. In 2000, Billie Holiday was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
One of her most popular and influential songs is “Strange Fruit.” It was one of the first racism protest songs to be recorded in popular music. It is based off a poem written by Abel Meeropol. With the song’s blatant indictment of racism in the American south, it’s said that Holiday was afraid of retaliation every time she sang the song. But despite being aware of the danger, Holiday sang “Strange Fruit” with unwavering bravery and intention.