5 Facts About Billie Holiday

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You no doubt know that Billie Holiday is a bona fide legend in the music world. But here are a few things you might not know about the iconic songstress, who was born on this day in 1915.

1. She once worked in a brothel.

Born to an unwed teenaged mother, Holiday—whose birth name was Eleanora Fagan—spent her early years living in abject poverty in Baltimore. “I never had a chance to play with dolls like other kids,” she once stated. “I started working when I was 6 years old.” At the age of 9, she was sent to a facility for troubled youth. She dropped out of school in the fifth grade and began working as an errand girl at a brothel. At the age of 12, Holiday moved to Harlem with her mother, where she was arrested for prostitution at the age of 15.

2. She auditioned to be a dance and ended up a singer.

In 1932, desperate for money, Holiday—then just 16 years old—decided to pound the pavement in Harlem to scare up some quick cash. “One day we were so hungry we could barely breathe,” she once recalled. “It was cold as all-hell and I walked from 145th to 133rd [Street] … going in every joint trying to find work … I stopped in the Log Cabin Club run by Jerry Preston [and] told him I was a dancer. He said to dance. I tried it. He said I stunk. I told him I could sing. He said sing. Over in the corner was an old guy playing the piano. He struck ‘Trav'lin’ and I sang. The customers stopped drinking. They turned around and watched. The pianist swung into ‘Body and Soul.’ Jeez, you should have seen those people—all of them started crying. Preston came over, shook his head and said, ‘Kid, you win.’”

3. She was an early reality star.

Before there was The Real World, The Amazing Race, Survivor, or American Idol, there was The Comeback Story. Broadcast on ABC from 1953 to 1954, the black-and-white series was one of television’s first reality shows. In it, celebrities shared their true stories of how they found success, despite seemingly overwhelming adversity. Holiday appeared on the series' third episode, on October 16, 1953.

4. U2's "Angel of Harlem" is a tribute to Holiday.

Miles Davis and John Coltrane are two of the jazz greats referenced in U2’s hit song “Angel of Harlem,” but the song itself—which appeared on 1988’s Rattle & Hum album—was written about Holiday. Hence the lyrics: “Lady Day got diamond eyes; She sees the truth behind the lies.” “Lady Day” was the nickname given to Holiday by saxophonist Lester Young.

5. SHE IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE SONG OF THE CENTURY.

In 1999, TIME Magazine named Holiday’s original studio recording of “Strange Fruit,” a 1939 protest song against lynching that was originally written as a poem by Abel Meeropol, the “song of the century.” The song is also part of The Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry and has been covered by various other artists, including Herbie Hancock and Nina Simone. (In 2013, Kanye West sampled Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit” in his song, “Blood on the Leaves.”)

8 Facts About David Bowie's 'Space Oddity'

Express/Express/Getty Images
Express/Express/Getty Images

Fifty years ago, on July 24, 1969, astronauts walked on the Moon for the first time. Just a few weeks earlier, another space-age event had rocked the world: David Bowie’s single “Space Oddity” hit airwaves. The song, whose lyrics tell the story of an astronaut’s doomed journey into space, helped propel the artist to icon status, and five decades later, it’s still one of his most popular works. In honor of its 50th anniversary, here are some facts about the stellar track.

1. "Space Oddity" was inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Many listeners assumed that "Space Oddity" was riffing on the Apollo 11 Moon landing of 1969, but it was actually inspired by a Stanley Kubrick film released a year earlier. Bowie watched 2001: A Space Odyssey multiple times when it premiered in theaters in 1968. “It was the sense of isolation I related to,” Bowie told Classic Rock in 2012. “I found the whole thing amazing. I was out of my gourd, very stoned when I went to see it—several times—and it was really a revelation to me. It got the song flowing.”

2. "Space Oddity" was also inspired by heartbreak.

The track was also partly inspired by the more universal experience of heartbreak. Bowie wrote the song after ending his relationship with actress Hermione Farthingale. The break inspired several songs, including “Letter to Hermione” and “Life on Mars,” and in “Space Oddity,” Bowie’s post-breakup loneliness and melancholy is especially apparent.

3. "Space Oddity" helped him sign a record deal.

In 1969, a few years into David Bowie’s career, the musician recorded a demo tape with plans to use it to land a deal with Mercury Records. That tape featured an early iteration of “Space Oddity,” and based on the demo, Mercury signed him for a one-album deal. But the song failed to win over one producer. Tony Visconti, who produced Bowie’s self-titled 1969 album, thought the song was a cheap attempt to cash in on the Apollo 11 mission, and he tapped someone else to produce that particular single.

4. The BBC played "Space Oddity" during the Moon landing.

"Space Oddity" was released on July 11, 1969—just five days before NASA launched Apollo 11. The song doesn’t exactly sound like promotional material for the mission. It ends on a somber note, with Major Tom "floating in a tin can" through space. But the timing and general subject matter were too perfect for the BBC to resist. The network played the track over footage of the Moon landing. Bowie later remarked upon the situation, saying, "Obviously, some BBC official said, 'Oh, right then, that space song, Major Tom, blah blah blah, that’ll be great. 'Um, but he gets stranded in space, sir.' Nobody had the heart to tell the producer that."

5. David Bowie recorded an Italian version of "Space Oddity."

The same year "Space Oddity" was released, a different version David Bowie recorded with Italian lyrics was played by radio stations in Italy. Instead of directly translating the English words, the Italian songwriter Mogul was hired to write new lyrics practically from scratch. "Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola" ("Lonely Boy, Lonely Girl") is a straightforward love song, and Major Tom is never mentioned.

6. Major Tom appeared in future songs.

Major Tom, the fictional astronaut at the center of "Space Oddity," is one of the most iconic characters invented for a pop song. It took a decade for him to resurface in David Bowie’s discography. In his 1980 single "Ashes to Ashes," the artists presents a different version of the character, singing: "We know Major Tom's a junkie/Strung out in heaven's high/Hitting an all-time low." Bowie also references Major Tom in "Hallo Spaceboy" from the 1995 album Outside.

7. "Space Oddity" is featured in Chris Hadfield's ISS music video.

When choosing a song for the first music filmed in space, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield naturally went with David Bowie’s out-of-this-world anthem. The video above was recorded on the International Space Station in 2013, with Hadfield playing guitar and singing from space and other performers providing musical accompaniment from Earth. Some lyrics were tweaked for the cover. Hadfield mentions the "Soyuz hatch" of the capsule that would eventually shuttle him to Earth.

8. "Space Oddity" played on the Tesla that Elon Musk sent to space.

Dummy in Tesla roadster in space with Earth in background.
SpaceX via Getty Images

In 2018, Elon Musk used SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket to launch his Tesla Roadster into space. The car was decked out with pop culture Easter eggs—according to Musk, "Space Oddity" was playing over the car’s radio system during the historic journey. The dummy’s name, Starman, is the name of another space-themed song on Bowie's 1972 masterpiece The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Ziggy Stardust Barbie Debuts for 50th Anniversary of David Bowie's 'Space Oddity'

David Bowie Barbie doll from Mattel.
David Bowie Barbie doll from Mattel.
Mattel

On July 11, 1969, David Bowie released "Space Oddity"—a song that captured the spirit of the space age in the weeks leading up to the Apollo 11 Moon landing and launched a stellar new alter ego for the singer. Though he wouldn't officially adopt his Ziggy Stardust persona until he put out his album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars a few years later, the song laid the foundation for his career-long obsession with the extraterrestrial. Now, David Bowie's iconic Ziggy Stardust character is being honored by another icon: Barbie.

Mattel's new Ziggy Stardust Barbie was made to coincide with the 50th anniversary of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" on July 11, 2019. The androgynous doll rocks Ziggy's signature style, from the black nail polish to the fire engine-red platform boots. The metallic, red- and blue-striped "space suit" with the flared shoulders is taken straight from Bowie's early-1970s wardrobe. And of course, it wouldn't be Ziggy Stardust without the gold astral sphere painted on the forehead.

Even the packaging will appeal to David Bowie fans. The box has been printed with a collage featuring real photographs of the musician taken early in his career. The product also includes a doll stand and certificate of authenticity.

The special Ziggy Stardust Barbie is a "Gold Label" collector's item, meaning it's only available in limited quantities. You can purchase one from the online Barbie shop today for $50 while supplies last.

David Bowie Barbie doll from Mattel.
Mattel

David Bowie Barbie doll from Mattel.
Mattel

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