July 17, 1959: With Police Armed Outside Her Hospital Room, Billie Holiday Died

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July 17, 1959: With police armed outside her hospital room, Billie Holiday died from pulmonary edema and heart failure caused by cirrhosis of the liver.

Almost 2 months prior to her death, on May 31, 1959, Holiday was taken to Metropolitan Hospital in New York suffering from liver and heart disease. She was arrested for drug possession as she lay dying, and her hospital room was raided by authorities. Police officers were stationed at the door to her room til her death.

In the final years of her life, she had been progressively swindled out of her earnings, and she died with $0.70 in the bank and $750 (a tabloid fee) on her.

Her funeral mass was held at Church of St. Paul the Apostle in New York City.

Gilbert Millstein of The New York Times, who had been the narrator at Billie Holiday’s 1956 Carnegie Hall concerts and had partly written the sleeve notes for the album The Essential Billie Holiday (see above), described her death in these same 1961-dated sleeve notes:

“Billie Holiday died in the Metropolitan Hospital, New York, on Friday, July 17, 1959, in the bed in which she had been arrested for illegal possession of narcotics a little more than a month before, as she lay mortally ill; in the room from which a police guard had been removed – by court order – only a few hours before her death, which, like her life, was disorderly and pitiful. She had been strikingly beautiful, but she was wasted physically to a small, grotesque caricature of herself. The worms of every kind of excess – drugs were only one – had eaten her … The likelihood exists that among the last thoughts of this cynical, sentimental, profane, generous and greatly talented woman of 44 was the belief that she was to be arraigned the following morning. She would have been, eventually, although possibly not that quickly. In any case, she removed herself finally from the jurisdiction of any court here below.”

Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan) was a jazz singer and songwriter. Nicknamed “Lady Day” by her friend and musical partner Lester Young, Holiday had a seminal influence on jazz and pop singing. Her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo.Critic John Bush wrote that Holiday “changed the art of American pop vocals forever.”

She co-wrote only a few songs, but several of them have become jazz standards, notably “God Bless the Child”, “Don’t Explain”, “Fine and Mellow”, and “Lady Sings the Blues”. She also became famous for singing “Easy Living”, “Good Morning Heartache”, and “Strange Fruit”, a protest song which became one of her standards and was made famous with her 1939 recording. Music critic Robert Christgau called her “uncoverable, possibly the greatest singer of the century”.

?1987: Billie Holiday was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

?1993: R&B singer Miki Howard released an album dedicated to Holiday titled Miki Sings Billie.

?1994: The United States Postal Service introduced a Billie Holiday postage stamp.

?1999: Holiday ranked #6 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Women in Rock n’ Roll.

?2000: Holiday was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

?Over the years, there have been many tributes to Billie Holiday, including “The Day Lady Died,” a 1959 poem by Frank O’Hara.

?In 1988 the group U2 released “Angel of Harlem” in her honor.

?Arthur Phillips features Holiday’s 1953 concert in New York in his novel The Song is You (2009).

?”My Only Friend” by The Magnetic Fields is a tribute to Billie Holiday

?1972: Diana Ross portrayed Holiday in the film Lady Sings the Blues, which is loosely based on the 1956 autobiography of the same name. The film earned Ross a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actress.

?She was portrayed by Ernestine Jackson in the play Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill by Lanie Robertson.

?Singer Miki Howard released the Holiday tribute album, Miki Sings Billie: A Tribute to Billie Holiday in 1993.

?Paula Jai Parker portrayed Holiday in a Season 7 episode of the TV series Touched by an Angel, entitled “God Bless the Child,” the title derived from a song which Holiday had written and performed.

?Jazz pianist Mal Waldron performed as Holiday’s accompanist and released several tribute albums including:
?Left Alone (Bethlehem, 1959)
?Blues for Lady Day (Black Lion, 1972)
?Left Alone ’86 with Jackie McLean (Paddle Wheel, 1986)
?No More Tears (For Lady Day) (Timeless, 1989)
?Billie Hollidy, Croatian National Theatre in Split by A.Ostojić & Ksenia Prohaska (2006)


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