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How Billie Holiday’s Estate Has Led ‘An Afterlife of Tragedy’

Billie Holiday's estate went to her abusive third husband, then his widow. Now it's owned by Concord, which is benefiting from new films.

There’s a scene in The United States vs. Billie Holiday when the iconic jazz singer — played by Andra Day, a contender for best actress at the Academy Awards on April 25 — is dying in bed, contemplating her legacy. “He’s trying to control my estate,” she says of her abusive third husband, Louis McKay.

When Holiday died in 1959 without a will — but with a roll of $50 bills strapped to her leg, as the story goes — McKay did end up inheriting her estate, including her recording royalties, rights to her image, her publishing to songs including “God Bless the Child” and “Fine and Mellow,” and her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues. (McKay even served as an adviser on the film of the same name, in which he was flatteringly portrayed by Billy Dee Williams.) And when McKay died of a heart attack in 1981, Holiday’s estate went to his heirs, including his widow, Bernice McKay, who in 2012 sold it to the independent publisher Bicycle Music — which three years later merged with Concord Music Group.


“It’s not right that someone who was as awful to Billie Holiday as Louis McKay was would then have control of her likeness and her money,” says Danyel Smith, a former Billboard editor whose Shine Bright: A Personal History of Black Women In Pop is due early next year. “And it’s insane, at the end of the day, control of her money and likeness is in the hands of people who didn’t know her or have a relationship with her.”

The last year has been unusually active for Holiday’s estate. She’s the subject of two movies: The United States vs. Billie Holiday, plus the Billie documentary that started streaming on-demand in December. Her haunting recording of the civil rights classic “Strange Fruit” took off during last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, growing from 3.5 million U.S. streams in 2018 to 5.2 million in 2020, according to MRC Data. Since Holiday was primarily a singer and never owned her recordings, most of the value of her estate lies in the name and likeness rights that movie producers usually need to make a film. And at a time when publishing assets have increased in value, investors like Irving Azoff’s Iconic Music Group have entered this market.


As the owner of Holiday’s estate, Concord has an interest in protecting her legacy. “We’re not here to change her story,” says Michele Smith, Concord’s vp of estate and legacy brand management. “We’re here to shine a light on the parts of her story that the world has failed to recognize.”

Experts see unlimited potential in the Holiday estate, even with relatively minimal publishing revenue. Travis Cloyd, a Florida International University futurist in residence who specializes in virtual-reality projects, says holograms and other high-tech ventures “open up the doors to a lot of these historical figures having new ways of storytelling.” Jeff Jampol, who manages the estates of the Doors, Janis Joplin and others, likens “Strange Fruit” to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Sam Cooke‘s “A Change Is Gonna Come” as an eternal civil-rights Black Lives Matter anthem. “It’s a seminal moment that has resonated around the world for decades,” he says. “And she is f—ing cool! You can take that dormant power and put it back in the pop conversation in a way that’s relevant to 14-year-olds.”

At the same time, Holiday’s posthumous loss of control over her work and legacy has been a cautionary tale for other major artists. “It’s painful to read that she died with a few pennies in her bank account,” says Jay Cooper, a music attorney who represents the estates of Etta James, Glen Campbell and John Denver. “She had a life of tragedy, and she had an afterlife of tragedy.”

This article originally appeared in the April 24, 2021 issue of Billboard.