Billie Holiday

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I ain't good looking
And my hair ain't curls
But my mother she give me something
It's going to carry me through this world.
Billie Holiday in 1947 at the Downbeat club, a jazz club in New York City.

Billie Holiday (April 7, 1915July 17, 1959), born Eleanora Fagan Goughy, was an American jazz singer. Commonly known as Lady Day, her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo.


  • [I]t takes a bad woman to be a good godmother.
    • Remark made to Rosemary Clooney, c. summer 1956, regarding Holiday's qualifications to serve as godmother to Clooney's second child, as quoted by Clooney in "Profiles: The Heart, The Head, and The Pipes" by Whitney Balliett in The New Yorker (August 3, 1992). "Just before she left, I asked her if she would like to be the godmother of my second child, Maria, who was about to be born, and she said yes, that it takes a bad woman to be a good godmother. It was the last time I saw her."

Billie's Blues

Holiday varied the lyrics of this and other songs in her renditions of them; included are some of the major passages of some of the variants.
  • Who love my man, I'm a liar if I say I don't
    But I'll quit my man, I'm a liar if I say I wont.
  • I've been your slave
    Ever since I've been your babe
    But before I be your dog
    I'll see you in your grave.
  • I ain't good looking
    And my hair ain't curls
    But my mother she give me something
    It's going to carry me through this world.
  • Lord I love my man, tell the world I do
    I love my man, tell the world I do
    But when he mistreats me
    Makes me feel so blue.
  • Some men like me talkin' happy
    Some calls it snappy
    Some call me honey
    Others think I got money
    Some tell me baby you're built for speed
    Now if you put that all together
    Makes me everything a good man needs.

God Bless The Child

Song co-authored with Arthur Herzog Jr.
  • Them that's got shall get
    Them that's not shall lose

    So the Bible said and it still is news
    Mama may have, Papa may have
    But God bless the child that's got his own
    That's got his own.
  • Yes, the strong gets more
    While the weak ones fade
    Empty pockets don't ever make the grade
    Mama may have, Papa may have
    But God bless the child that's got his own
    That's got his own.
  • Money, you've got lots of friends
    Crowding round the door
    When you're gone, spending ends
    They don't come no more
    Rich relations give
    Crust of bread and such
    You can help yourself
    But don't take too much.

Lady Sings the Blues (1956)


Holiday's autobiography; co-authored with William Dufty.[1]

  • No two people on earth are alike, and it's got to be that way in music or it isn't music.
    • Ch. 4.
  • I can’t stand to sing the same song the same way two nights in succession, let alone two years or ten years. If you can, then it ain’t music, it’s close-order drill or exercise or yodeling or something, not music.
    • Ch. 4.
  • You can be up to your boobies in white satin, with gardenias in your hair and no sugar cane for miles, but you can still be working on a plantation.
    • Ch. 11.
  • Mel Tormé ... used to win all of Billy's lindy contests. Maybe he couldn't cut the cats at the Savoy in Harlem, but he sure could dance. He was like me when I was a kid, in a way, wanting to make it as a dancer and not interested in singing. And he was a switch on me in another way. My singing voice is clear but my speaking voice is husky; Mel's speaking voice was clear but his singing voice sounded kind of cloudy and foggy. I tried to tell him he had something different in the way of sound and encouraged him to try singing. He never seemed to want to listen. Maybe a lot of other people told him the same thing, but anyway, I was pleased later to hear he was making it. I always liked his singing, too. No matter what he was doing, he wasn't imitating anybody and he had that beat.
    • Ch. 11.
  • Imagine if the government chased sick people with diabetes, put a tax on insulin and drove it into the black market, told doctors they couldn’t treat them, and then caught them, prosecuted them for not paying their taxes, and then sent them to jail. If we did that, everyone would know we were crazy. Yet we do practically the same thing every day in the week to sick people hooked on drugs. The jails are full and the problem is getting worse every day.
    • Ch. 17.
  • Somebody once said we never know what is enough until we know what's more than enough.
    • Ch. 20.
  • I've been told that nobody sings the word "hunger" like I do. Or the word "love."
    • Ch. 22.
  • You've got to have something to eat and a little love in your life before you can hold still for any damn body's sermon on how to behave. Everything I am and everything I want out of life goes smack back to that.
    • Ch. 22.
  • If you think dope is for kicks and for thrills, you’re out of your mind. There are more kicks the fuck to be had in a good case of paralytic polio or by living in an iron lung. If you think you need stuff to play music or sing, you’re crazy. It can fix you so you can’t play nothing or sing nothing.
    • Ch. 23.
  • I'm always making a comeback but nobody ever tells me where I've been.
    • Ch. 23.
  • In this country, don’t forget, a habit is no damn private hell. There’s no solitary confinement outside of jail. A habit is hell for those you love. And in this country it’s the worst kind of hell for those who love you.
    • Ch. 24.


  • Southern trees bear a strange fruit
    Blood on the leaf and blood at the root
    Black bodies swingin’ in the southern breeze
    Strange fruit hangin’ in the poplar trees.
    • "Strange Fruit" (1939). The anti-lynching song most associated with Holiday was actually written by Abel Meeropol (using his pseudonym "Lewis Allen").

Quotes about Holiday

  • In Billie Holiday's famous phrase: "Ain't nobody's business what I do."
  • When I say poet, it's an arbitrary word. It's a word I use because I don't like the word artist. Nina Simone is a poet. Max Roach is a poet. There is a whole list of people. I'm not talking about literature at all. I'm talking about the recreation of experience, you know, the way that it comes back. Billie Holiday was a poet. She gave you back your experience. She refined it, and you recognized it for the first time because she was in and out of it and she made it possible for you to bear it. And if you could bear it, then you could begin to change it. That's what a poet does. I'm not talking about books. I'm talking about a certain kind of passion, a certain kind of energy which people produce and they secrete in certain people like Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, and Max Roach because they need it and these people give it back to you and they get you from one place to another.
    • 1973 interview in Conversations with James Baldwin edited by Louis H. Pratt and Fred L. Standley (1989)
  • I once had a drink with Billie Holiday, and I smoked a joint with Louis Armstrong. Those are my real claims to fame.
    • John Chamberlain Art Is the Highest Form of Hope & Other Quotes by Artists by Phaidon (2016) p 144
  • Billie Holiday—she was the nicest woman in the world, you know. All she wanted to do was sing. They picked on her and picked on her to get money out of her. You do drugs 'cause you like to, not 'cause it's a life-style.... They picked on Billie so much. She said, "Miles, come and see me in Long Island." She was in love with one of my kids and his curly hair—he used to ride my bicycle and watch the horse at Aqueduct. She said, "Miles, if they'd just leave me alone; they could have the house—everything." You know the way singers shake their asses now. Billie didn't have to do that. Her mouth was so sensuous; she was pretty and she would say certain words and her mouth would quiver, and she always had this white gardenia and long gloves.
    • Miles Davis, speaking with Julie Coryell in February 1978; as quoted in Jazz-Rock Fusion: The People, The Music (1978) by Coryell and Laura Friedman, p. 41
  • Billie Holiday’s burned voice
    had as many shadows as lights,
    a mournful candelabra against a sleek piano,
    the gardenia her signature under that ruined face.
  • I would say that the most emotional moment was her listening to the playback of "I'm a Fool to Want You." There were tears in her eyes... After we finished the album I went into the control room and listened to all the takes. I must admit I was unhappy with her performance, but I was just listening musically instead of emotionally. It wasn't until I heard the final mix a few weeks later that I realized how great her performance really was.
  • Billie Holiday's voice was the voice of living intensity of soul in the true sense of that greatly abused word. As a human being she was sweet, sour, kind, mean, generous, profane, lovable and impossible, and nobody who knew her expects to see anyone quite like her again.
  • There aren't many things in life that I enjoy more than a few lines of heroin by the fireplace at the end of the day. Billie Holiday's soul-stirring voice sets the scene and mood: "God bless the child that's got his own." Holiday herself was an avid heroin user. She was criticized, of course. Her response, according to biographer Farah Jasmine Griffin, was that neither of her parents used drugs and she outlived them both: "Heroin not only kept me alive-maybe it also kept me from killing." I know the feeling.
    • Carl Hart Drug Use for Grown-Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear (2021)
  • She could express more emotion in one chorus than most actresses can in three acts.
  • somebody should do something interesting on that kind of show business woman-Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith-not just their art form, but their lives. It's incredible, that sense of adventure that those women had. And I think that's why they were there in the first place. They were outside of that little community value thing.
    • 1976 interview in Conversations with Toni Morrison edited by Danille K. Taylor-Guthrie (1994)
  • Behind me, Billie was on her last song. I picked up the refrain, humming a few bars. Her voice sounded different to me now. Beneath the layers of hurt, beneath the ragged laughter, I heard a willingness to endure. Endure—and make music that wasn't there before.
  • I have to go back to Billie Holiday. Billie Holiday was such a seminal figure in my life. Everything about her. What a courageous woman she was.
  • It was a real bitter blues, and on top of all the problems I was having in my own life at the time, I began thinking about what was happening to Lady Day. Brilliant artist, beautiful person—you could pin all the superlatives on her, but there she was, having just been misused again by somebody who didn't give a damn about her, having just been given a hard time by the French public because her voice couldn't do what they wanted it to do on the stage of the Olympia Theatre, there she was, singing in a little club for whatever percentage she could get. I started crying pretty loud. [...] She backed me into a corner and in a cold, dry voice said something that was so powerful, so full of meaning that I'll never forget it. She said "No matter what the motherf------- do to you, never let 'em see you cry." That's the kind of person she was—always concerned about somebody else, always trying to protest the people she cared about. The tragedy was that she couldn't protect herself.
  • In terms of my singing I have sometimes been asked how it all began, and it’s usually been a little hard for me to set the story down in any continuous narrative. From the days of my childhood I’ve been listening to sounds and singers, both colored and white, and absorbing a little bit here and a little bit there. Countless musicians of talent have helped. But it is Billie Holiday, whom I first heard in 52nd Street clubs in the early 1930s, who was and still remains the single greatest musical influence on me. It has been a warm and wonderful influence and I am very proud to acknowledge it. Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last 20 years. With a few exceptions, every major pop singer in the U.S., during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius.
  • The depth of Lady’s singing has always rocked me. When I first heard her, standing under a spotlight in a 52nd Street jazz spot, swaying with the beat, I was dazzled by her soft, breathtaking beauty. It was the kind of face that made a man want to touch it tenderly.
    • Frank Sinatra, in "The Way I Look at Race"
  • Billie's voice was shot, though the gardenia in her hair was as fresh as usual. Ben Webster, for so long big man on tenor, was backing her. He was having it rough, too. Yet they transcended. There were perhaps fifteen, twenty patrons in the house. At most. Awful sad. Still, when Lady sang "Fine and Mellow," you felt that way. And when she went into "Willow, Weep for Me," you wept. You looked about and saw that the few other customers were also crying in their beer and shot glasses. Nor were they that drunk. Something was still there, that something that distinguishes an artist from a performer: the revealing of the self. Here I be. Not for long, but here I be. In sensing her mortality, we sensed our own.
    • Studs Terkel on a performance by Holiday in 1956, in Talking to Myself (1977)


  1. Lady Sings the Blues the 50th Anniversary Edition. By Billie Holiday, William Dufty.
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