Skip to main content


Billie Holiday

June 2024
5min read

In a sordid new biography, the great blues singer’s life has eclipsed her art

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.

Billie Holiday: The Legacy (Columbia Jazz Masterpieces 47724, three CDs, seventy tunes) includes all the recordings that won her an initial following. At first she specialized in silly tunes like “Your Mother’s Son-in-Law,” “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” and “Miss Brown to You,” managing to make them memorable with her bright, mocking voice and her trick of singing just behind the beat. But soon thereafter the mood began to darken. Her own bitter “God Bless the Child” and “Gloomy Sunday” (subtitled “The Hungarian Suicide Song”) were early hits, and when, in 1939, she became the star of Café Society, New York’s first officially integrated nightclub, she ended each set with “Strange Fruit,” a lament about lynching saved from bathos only by her stark, understated delivery.

Billie Holiday: The Complete Decca Recordings (Decca Records GRD2601, two CDs, fifty tunes) contains recordings made during and after the war, years during which the singer sought to reach a wider audience by recording with strings and vocal choruses, only to be sentenced to a term in federal prison for possession of narcotics that meant she would lose her New York cabaret card and thus be denied employment in city clubs.

The conventional wisdom about Holiday’s singing is that its quality fell off sharply during her final years, documented on Billie Holiday: The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve 1945-1959 (Verve Records 833765, ten CDs, 256 cuts, including snippets of rehearsal conversations). Certainly she sounded different in the 1950s from the 1930s. She never had either the volume or the range of her greatest contemporaries—Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, or the phenomenal Sarah Vaughan: “... it just go up a bit and come down a little bit,” she can be heard saying of her own voice during the rehearsal that makes up disc four. “This voice of mine’s a mess, a cat got to know what he’s doing when he plays with me.”

Long before her death, Holiday had followers more interested in her troubles than in her music.

And by the time she began recording in the Verve studios in 1952, dissipation had further damaged it. The voice in which she banters profanely with her musicians is thick and cracked, and in some performances it was failing her altogether. At the Newport Jazz Festival 1957 (disc ten), for example, she seemed a pathetic caricature of herself, her voice blurred by alcohol and drugs and exhaustion, stumbling over lyrics she had sung a thousand times before, abandoned even by the uncanny sense of time that had always been at the heart of her style.

But those rambling but fascinating studio conversations also show a perfectionist at work, adjusting and readjusting old arrangements, trying out new ones, changing time, key, instrumentation, determined always to make a good song better, a great song greater still. She could not bear to sing a song exactly the same way twice, she often said. “I just can’t do it. I can’t even copy me.” And when she pulled herself together, as she sometimes managed to do even toward the very end, she was, I believe, a finer singer than she had ever been, not because she had suffered so but because onstage and in the sound studio, if not in life, she had learned how to transcend her suffering and transform it into art.

The Masters of American Music may not be the most sophisticated series of videocassettes and laser discs to be found on the shelves of your local video store. Production budgets are relatively low, and the editing is mostly basic. But they are serious attempts at synthesizing the lives and works of some of American’s finest artists, filled with interviews with musicians and footage rarely seen elsewhere—including, on Lady Day , a haggard Holiday, listening dreamily, eyes closed, as a former lover, the equally fragile tenor saxophone star Lester Young, breathes a blues solo of supernatural delicacy in tribute to her.

Here are the rest of the titles currently available: Bluesland: A Portrait in American Music; The Story of Jazz; Satchmo: Louis Armstrong; Sarah Vaughan: The Divine One; Swingin’ the Blues: Count Basic; Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker (enthusiastically reviewed in this space some years back); The World According to John Coltrane; Thelonious Monk: An American Composer; Ray Charles: The Genius of Soul .

Each one of them is worth seeing—and hearing.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.