- Historic Sites
In a sordid new biography, the great blues singer’s life has eclipsed her art
December 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 8
Billie Holiday made hundreds of memorable recordings before her death thirty-five years ago, but she never liked any of them much: “... it’s always something that you should have done,” she told an interviewer. “Or you should have waited here , or you should have phrased—well, you know how it is.”
She was an artist, fully conscious (except when one or another of her twin addictions temporarily befogged her mind) of the effect on her audience of every precisely enunciated syllable, every languid rhythm and shrewdly slurred phrase.
That simple, central fact has eluded a good many of those who have written about her. She herself helped foster their confusion. Not long before she died in 1959, raddled by heroin and alcohol and desperate for money, she agreed to tell her story to William Dufty, a friend who evidently believed double-checking any of her tales would be seen by her as an act of betrayal. The lurid result, Lady Sings the Blues , proudly billed by its publisher as “the most shocking autobiography of our times,” portrayed her mostly as a helpless victim—of endemic racism and malevolent men, idiotic laws and an uncaring public. Later it would serve as the basis for an overwrought Hollywood film starring Diana Ross that further muddied the waters.
The unadorned facts of her life were chilling enough. Born in Philadelphia in 1915 but brought up in Baltimore, the illegitimate daughter of an illegitimate mother, she yearned all her girlhood for her mostly absent father, Clarence Holiday, a big-band banjo player and guitarist whose flashy example helped lure her into the music business but whose hustling ways would be mirrored in many of the predatory men she later called Daddy. She was molested and abused as a child, and at the age of twelve was working as a prostitute in Alice Dean’s waterfront brothel and earning extra tips singing along with the Victrola in the parlor. Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith were her favorites and (with Ethel Waters) became the sources of her style.
She moved to New York at thirteen, worked for a time in another bordello, then began singing at house parties and small Harlem clubs, where the record producer John Hammond first heard her in 1933 and signed her up for Columbia Records. “I heard something that was completely new and fresh,” he recalled, “the phrasing, the sound of an instrumentalist.”
“You know the kind of people that say, ‘I’m going to get cussed out anyways, so what’s the difference? What the hell?’” a woman who’d known her when she was a child prostitute recalled. “Well, Eleanora just went out and done what she felt like doing ’cause she was just don’t care-ish. . . .” She would remain don’t care-ish all her life—cursing, drinking, brawling, pursuing partners of both sexes, a victimizer almost as often as she was a victim. And as her popularity reached its peak about 1940, she also began daily injections of the narcotic that eventually consumed her life and helped cut short her career.
Long before her death, Holiday (like her sisters in misery, Judy Garland and Edith Piaf) had begun to attract a following more interested in her troubles than in her music. And after she died, just forty-four years old, some of her friends and fellow musicians, remembering the turbulence of her personal life and the authentic trauma through which she had lived, unwittingly reinforced the false notion that her singing had somehow been nothing more than an instinctive echo of her own, mostly painful experiences. “Billie never sang a note she had not lived,” they liked to say, thereby evoking more empathy for her travails than admiration for her astonishing art.
In 1970 a young Holiday devotee named Linda Lipnack Kuehl began interviewing people who had known her idol. She intended to use them to correct the errors in Lady Sings the Blues with a full-fledged biography but died before she could complete it, leaving behind transcripts and tape recordings of almost 150 interviews. These were first used by the critic Robert O’Meally in his revealing, handsomely illustrated biographical essay Lady Day: The Many Paces of Billie Holiday (Arcade Publishing, 1991, $29.95) and in the writing of the script for a compelling documentary of the same name, currently available on videocassette and laser disc as part of the Masters of American Music series (more about which below).
Now, Donald Clarke, a British critic, has used the same archive to produce a biography of his own, Wishing on the Moon: The Life and Times of Billie Holiday (Viking, $24.95). Sadly, it turns out to be pretty much a disaster: repetitive, nearly impossible to follow, and, since the author has chosen to include a host of long, sordid, and now unverifiable stories about Holiday’s tumultuous private life, sure to distract still more attention from what really matters. Clarke, who should know better—he is the editor and principal author of The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music —seems largely to have forgotten that while the world is filled with alcoholics and addicts, street brawlers and unhappy lovers, there was only one Billie Holiday.
Luckily, the music that proves that rule survives, and thanks to the current craze for collecting an artist’s complete work in pricey CD packages, most of the Holiday canon is now available to anyone willing to pay the freight.