Billie Holiday and Spizzy Canfield of the Canfield and Lewis comedy team

April 20, 1946
Credit Line
John W. Mosley Photograph Collection, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA.

Mosley catches vocalist Billie Holiday wearing her signature gardenia and in a playful moment backstage with vaudeville comedian Spizzy Canfield, of the nationally-known Canfield and Lewis comedy team.

Holiday, best known as “Lady Day,” had one of the most distinctive voices of all time. Although she died fifty years ago, she continues to inspire singers today. Her personal style of phrasing and rhythm conveyed a unique emotional power.

Born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915, in Philadelphia, she spent much of her childhood in Baltimore, Maryland. Her childhood circumstances were difficult, and she described that listening to music sustained her. In 1930, Holiday began singing in New York City’s clubs and renamed herself "Billie" after the film star Billie Dove. She recorded with jazz pianist Teddy Wilson and others in 1935 and made several singles, including "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" and "Miss Brown to You.” After touring with Count Basie's band in 1937, she joined Artie Shaw and his orchestra, breaking new ground by becoming one of the first black female vocalists to work with a white orchestra. Unfortunately, promoters objected and she soon left the orchestra.

Striking out on her own, Holiday performed at New York's Café Society, and developed her trademark stage persona there, which included wearing gardenias in her hair. During this engagement, Holiday also debuted two of her most famous songs, "God Bless the Child" and "Strange Fruit" (1939), which was a powerful story about the lynching of African Americans in the South. This ballad is considered to be one of her signature ballads, and the controversy that surrounded it—some radio stations banned the record—helped to make it a hit.

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