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Was Racism the Catalyst that killed Billie Holiday? “Carter at Large” By Lorraine B. Carter

Billie Holiday, an American jazz musician and singer-songwriter with a career spanning nearly thirty years was the greatest jazz and jazz blues singer the world has ever known. She was born, Eleanora Fagan, April 7, 1915. She changed her name to her father’s last name of Holiday and her first name to Billie from actress Billie Dove. She developed her style by listening to Louis Armstrong and Betsy Smith; she was also inspired by jazz instrumentalists and developed an unfamiliar way of manipulating phrasing and tempo. She became famous for her vocal delivery and improvisational skills. Ms. Holiday was given the nickname “Lady Day,” by Lester Young, a brilliant jazz tenor saxophonist.

Ms. Holiday had a tough childhood of instability and poverty, causing her to seek work at an early age. Working briefly in a neighborhood Bordello as a maid, she quit after a patron mistook her as one of the girls and made improper advances toward her. Later, she moved to New York City from Baltimore and settled in Harlem, where she pounded the pavements looking for work. She wound up in front of a night club which had a sign out front that read “Dancers wanted.” After auditioning and failing miserably, the piano player asked her, if she could sing and the rest is history.

Ms. Holiday entered the world of music, and the world of music found the greatest jazz singer that ever lived. She found Cocaine and other drugs. She wore a white Gardenia in her hair while performing and when they brought her the white Gardenia for her shows, they also brought her the narcotic for her habit. She was a musical genius with a drug habit that should have been treated by a medical doctor.

Billie Holiday, a beautiful black woman, lived in an era of unabashed segregation, discrimination, and bigotry. Impassioned narcotic agents went beyond the call of duty to arrest her. The court system, unsympathetic to drug use, was no friend to a black woman with a drug habit. She was quickly sentenced to Rikers Island Prison.

After serving her time, the authorities made it impossible for her to get a Cabaret Card. The Cabaret License Card was needed to perform in New York’s night clubs and bars. Ironically, Ms. Holiday made her living in night clubs and bars. The Cabaret License Law, enacted in 1927, was passed largely due to drug popularity and a rise in other crimes. The Drug Enforcement Officers and licensing officials eager to do their job tormented Ms. Holiday, because they thought they were doing the right thing. They made her life abominable.

To get away from the harassment and earn some money, Ms. Holiday traveled to Germany for a concert performance. It was a phenomenal success. Upon returning to the United States, Billie Holiday, was invited to perform at the famous Carnegie Hall in New York City. “Billie Holiday at Carnegie Hall” was a gargantuan success with two sold out performances.

The ignorance of addiction took a genius singer from the world. Her career might have lasted for many years if her addiction had been treated by a doctor and she not jailed and imprisoned.

Could all of the unrelenting harassment, coupled with abject racism, have been the catalyst that led to her death?

Billie Holiday died July 17, 1959. The Cabaret License Law was repealed in 1967, eight years after her death. Her recordings still sell today all over the world. It has been said, if you have ever been in love, you will know Billie Holiday.

Try, ‘Lady in Satin,’ one of her best. Some of the labels she recorded with were: Brunswick Vocalion, Okeh; Bluebird, Commodore, Capitol, Decca, Aladdin, Verve, Columbia, and MGM. Verve made the best recordings of her songs.

For more information go to her website,