Billie Holiday died in July 1959 at age 44 from complications from cirrhosis of the liver with $0.70 in the bank and $750 strapped to her leg. Holiday died without a Will. It is estimated that her estate made 14 million dollars in 2014.
Born Eleanor Holiday in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania she endured a turbulent childhood, and began singing in nightclubs around Harlem in uptown Manhattan as a teenager. Saxophonist Lester Young nicknamed her “Lady Day” in 1936, and she subsequently worked with Count Basie and Artie Shaw, one of the very first black women to work with a white orchestra. However, she was beset with legal troubles, as well as alcoholism, and drug abuse, which affected her voice, and her reputation deteriorated.
Holiday known for her vocal delivery and improvisation skills has had a seminal influence on jazz music and pop singing. Her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo.
In 1958 Frank Sinatra said that
“Billie Holiday..was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me..[and] is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years”
As discussed above Holiday lived a hard life that was exacerbated by bad choices she made in men, many of whom took advantage of her. In March 1957, Holiday married Louis McKay, a Mafia enforcer. McKay was abusive, and at the time of her death they were estranged but not divorced. As Holiday died intestate under New York law McKay inherited her entire estate including her royalties.
Much of Holiday’s material has been rereleased since her death, receiving critical and popular acclaim as well as four posthumous Grammy awards for Best Historical Album for Holiday, and being inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1973. Lady Sings the Blues, a film centered on Holiday’s life, starring Diana Ross, was released in 1972. Billy Dee Williams portrayed McKay as a stabilizing amiable figure in her life (McKay was the film’s technical advisor.)
Holiday had people in her life that would have been better at handling her estate than her estranged husband. However like many people she had neglected to make a Will and therefore her estate ended up under the control of Louis McKay. When McKay died his Widow disputed his Will and she was awarded a one-third share of McKay’s estate – which was earning $15,000 a year at that time in royalties from Holiday’s music.