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Billie Holiday Was 44 When She Died With $0.70 in the Bank — Look Back at Her Harrowing Story

Christell Fatima M. Tudtud
Apr 26, 2021
03:40 A.M.
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Legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday was one of the brightest superstars of her generation. But her life had a tragic end, dying at 44 with almost nothing in the bank.

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Born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915, Billie Holiday became a jazz music icon in the '30s and '40s. She was celebrated for her exceptional vocal style and delivery, which influenced jazz musicians after her.

But her massive success did not translate into a peaceful and happy life. She battled substance abuse which led to her downfall. She passed away at the age of 44, with reportedly only $0.70 in the bank.

Billie Holiday during her onstage performance at the Newport Jazz festival on July 6, 1957 in Newport, Rhode Island. | Photo: Getty Iamges

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Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Holiday had a turbulent childhood marked by neglect and financial hardships. At nine years old, she was sent to a facility for troubled African American girls.

When she became an adult, she started working in Harlem nightclubs as a performer. With her unique vocal style, Holiday was a hit among jazz lovers. She was once quoted as saying:

"If I'm going to sing like someone else, then I don't need to sing at all."

Billie Holiday photographed in 1945. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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Her rise to stardom began after producer John Hammond discovered her. She released her first record as a member of the studio group led by clarinetist Benny Goodman.

By 1935, she had begun cementing her status in the world of jazz music. In the years that followed, she spawned various hits in collaboration with pianist and arranger Teddy Wilson.

She earned two Grammy nominations, including Best Solo Vocal Performance.

Billie Holiday performing at the Club Downbeat in Manhattan, New York. | Photo: Getty Images

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Besides Wilson, she also performed with iconic saxophonist Lester Young. Their tandem was a hit among jazz music lovers. They ascended to musical greatness together while touring under the Count Basie Orchestra.

Aside from their professional relationships, the pair became close friends. Young coined her nickname, "Lady Day," which many people still use to refer to her to this day.

Holiday's timeless hits include "Easy Living," "What Is This Thing Called Love," and "Solitude." She earned two Grammy nominations, including Best Solo Vocal Performance.

Billie Holiday in court during contract lawsuit in Los Angeles, California in 1949. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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But amidst her success, she struggled with alcoholism and drug abuse. Her marriage to alleged mafia enforcer Louis McKay was also described as an abusive relationship.

In July 1959, she died from complications from liver cirrhosis. Except for $0.70 in the bank and $750 strapped to her leg, the legendary singer had nothing else. She also died without a will.

Billie Holiday and her dog Mister Dog, backstage in 1946. | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

His estranged husband, McKay, became the sole heir of what's left of her estate. But royalties from her music benefited McKay, who remarried after her death, and his descendants.

Holiday's life has been turned into a biopic titled "The United States Vs. Billie Holiday," with singer and actress Andra Day playing her. The film focuses on the final years of her life.

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