How Billie became “Lady Day”

June 9th, 2017

Lester Young and Billie Holiday



Having just published Arya Jenkins’ excellent new short story “Foolish Love,” in which Billie Holiday’s music plays a central role in the life of the story’s main character, this piece, excerpted from Bill Crow’s 1990 book, Jazz Anecdotes, is a wonderful reminder of how Ms. Holiday became known as “Lady Day.”  The story is set up by Crow and stories about nicknames created by “Prez.”




Lester Young made up names for many of his friends, and everyone used them.  He called Count Basie “The Holy Man,” (shortened by the band to “Holy”) because he was the main man, the one from whom the work and the paycheck came.  (His later band called him “Chief.”)  Lester called Harry Edison “Sweets,” partly because of his lyrical solos and partly because of his devilish nature.  He called Earle Warren “Smiley,” and Herschel Evans “Tex.”  Of course, Lester always gave these nicknames the prefix “Lady.”  He might say, “Now Lady Tex, sing me a song.”

Lester was responsible for the knighting of Sir Charles Thompson.  There were three employees at Café Society with the name Charles Thompson, and to straighten things out Lester started using “Sir Charles” to identify the pianist.

“Motherfucker” was used by Lester as an all-purpose modifier.  With such constant use, it became an almost gentle term, but Lester occasionally restored its bite.  When annoyed by Birdland’s midget master of ceremonies Pee Wee Marquette, Lester diminished him with a contemptuous:

“Get out of my face, you half-a-motherfucker!”

The most famous nickname that Lester bestowed on anyone was “Lady Day” for Billie Holiday.  She returned the courtesy by naming him “The President.”  Billie tells the story:

Mom and I double up with laughter hearing Lester tell how dangerous it was for a young man living alone in a New York hotel.  And when he said, “Duchess, can I move in with you?” there was only one answer.  Mom gave him a room and he moved in with us.

Lester was the first to call Mom “Duchess” – and it turned out to be the title she carried to her grave.  Lester and I will probably be buried, too, still wearing the names we hung on each other after he came to live with us.

Back at the Log Cabin the other girls used to try and mock me by calling me “Lady,” because they thought I thought I was just too damn grand to take the damn customers’ money off the tables.  But the name Lady stuck long after everybody had forgotten where it had come from.  Lester took it and coupled it with the Day out of Holiday and called me “Lady Day.”

When it came to a name for Lester, I always felt he was the greatest, so his name had to be the greatest.  In this country, kings or counts or dukes don’t amount to nothing.  The greatest man around then was Franklin D. Roosevelt and he was the President.  So I started calling him The President.  It got shortened to Prez, but it still means what it was meant to mean – the top man in this country.





Excerpted from Jazz Anecdotes


Bill Crow






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2 comments on “How Billie became “Lady Day””

  1. I always wondered how Billy got her nickname: three B.Holiday bios later and I was still wondering so I’m glad to know now.

  2. I always wondered how Billy got her nickname: three B.Holiday bios later and I was still wondering so I’m glad to know now.

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In This Issue

This issue features a roundtable discussion about how the world of religion may have impacted the creative lives of Billie Holiday, Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison. Also, previous winners of the Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest reflect on their winning story; three new podcasts from Bob Hecht; new collection of poetry; recommendations of recently released jazz recordings, and lots more.

Short Fiction

"The Wailing Wall" -- a short story by Justin Short


Three prominent religious scholars -- Wallace Best, Tracy Fessenden and M. Cooper Harriss -- join us in a conversation about how the world of religion during the life and times of Langston Hughes (pictured), Billie Holiday and Ralph Ellison helps us better comprehend the meaning of their work.


Nine poets contribute ten poems celebrating jazz in poems as unique as the music itself

Short Fiction

In celebration of our upcoming 50th Short Fiction Contest, previous contest winners (dating to 2002) reflect on their own winning story, and how their lives have since unfolded.

The Joys of Jazz

In this edition, award winning radio producer Bob Hecht tells three stories; 1) on Charlie Christian, the first superstar of jazz guitar; 2) the poet Langston Hughes’ love of jazz music, and 3) a profile of the song “Strange Fruit”

On the Turntable

25 recently released jazz tunes that are worth listening to…including Bobo Stenson; Medeski, Martin and Wood; Muriel Grossman and Rudy Royston


Chick Corea, Rickie Lee Jones, Gary Giddins, Michael Cuscuna, Randy Brecker and Tom Piazza are among those responding to our question, "What are 3 or 4 of your favorite jazz recordings of the 1940's?"


"Billie Holiday" -- a poem (with collage) by Steve Dalachinsky

Coming Soon

Thomas Brothers, Duke University professor of music and author of two essential biographies of Louis Armstrong, is interviewed about his new book, HELP! The Beatles, Duke Ellington, and the Magic of Collaboration; also, Spelman College President Mary Schmidt Campbell, author of An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden, in a conversation about the brilliant 20th Century artist

In the previous issue

This issue features an interview with Bing Crosby biographer Gary Giddins; a collection of poetry devoted to the World War II era; and a new edition of “Reminiscing in Tempo,” in which the question “What are 3 or 4 of your favorite jazz recordings of the 1940’s” is posed to Rickie Lee Jones, Chick Corea, Tom Piazza and others.

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