Culture Re-View: The day Billie Holiday was released from prison

Billie Holliday Jan 13, 1949
Billie Holliday Jan 13, 1949 Copyright Ken McLaughlin/San Francisco Chronicle
Copyright Ken McLaughlin/San Francisco Chronicle
By Jonny Walfisz
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We take a look at Billie Holiday's stint in prison, as well as some other stars who've spent time behind bars.


16 March 1948: Billie Holiday is released from prison for “good behaviour.”

Born Eleanora Fragan in 1915, the American jazz singer Billie Holiday only knew the United States before racial segregation was outlawed. Nevertheless, her talent and perseverance saw her rise to stardom as one of the nation’s finest singers.

In 1935, Holiday worked with the pianist Teddy Wilson to record ‘What a Little Moonlight Can Do’, which is now considered a jazz standard. Her fame increased with her song ‘Strange Fruit’, written by Abel Meeropol to protest against lynching.

Her increased popularity naturally led to her animosity among the white-led FBI. At the peak of her commercial success, Holiday was arrested and sentenced to a year in prison for the possession of narcotics. While Holiday was a heroin user, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is widely acknowledged as the result of the FBI purposefully targeting her for the lyrics in ‘Strange Fruit’.

Holiday was released early on this day in 1948 from Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia because of “good behaviour”. Later that month, Holiday would perform her comeback at Carnegie Hall to a sold-out crowd.

In honour of Holiday’s release, here are some other music legends who’ve spent some time behind bars; but there’ll be no inclusion of anyone convicted for violent crimes.

George Michael

‘Careless Whisper’ singer and gay-icon George Michael may be one of the best-selling musicians of all time, but that didn’t stop his career careening to an embarrassing stop when he crashed his car into a Snappy Snaps printing shop in London in 2010.

Michael had been driving under the influence of drink and drugs and was charged for that, alongside the possession of cannabis. He spent four weeks at Highpoint Prison in Suffolk.

Matt Dunham/AP
George Michaels' band name "Wham!" written where he hit the Snappy SnapsMatt Dunham/AP

Paul McCartney

All four members of The Beatles were known for how much they appreciated altering their consciousnesses. For the most part, they managed to stay out of trouble for their predilections. That luck ran out when Paul McCartney travelled to Japan on tour with his band Wings in 1980.

Japanese police escort former Beatle Paul McCartney for questioning following his arrest at Narita Airport, near Tokyo, Jan. 17, 1980AP/AP1980

The Japanese customs officials found copious amounts of marijuana in McCartney’s luggage. Despite carrying enough to potentially deliver a seven-year sentence, McCartney got away with just nine days in a detention centre and financial repercussions of cancelling the 11-city concert tour in Japan.

The Rolling Stones

Not one, but two members of the legendary rock troupe found themselves in jail under drug possession charges. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were both at Richards’ house when police raided the place in 1967.

AP/1967 AP
Mick Jagger, left center, holding cigarette, and Keith Richard, right, smoking cigarette, leave Chichester court, May 10, 1967AP/1967 AP

The raid was the result of a tip-off from the News of the World paper. Both stars were sentenced to a year in jail but were released on bail a day later.

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